Federal funds point the way

March 6, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

CAC guards thoughts on Jackson Sq. projects

JACKSON SQ.—Struggling with the down economy and angling to benefit from the recently passed federal stimulus package, Jackson Square Partners (JSP) is focusing on public infrastructure as it moves to begin construction work on its ambitious development plan for the neighborhood.

JSP hopes to begin infrastructure work by this fall. The work will be focused on “improving the public way on Centre Street and Columbus Avenue,” said Jen Faigel of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), one of the developers Jackson Square Partners.

Meanwhile, the Jackson Square Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) has asked the Gazette to leave its last two meetings. The CAC group of city-appointed representatives from Jackson Square and surrounding neighborhoods is charged with advising BRA project managers through the course of the development project.

The project involves developing a number of city and state-owned parcels of land around the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Centre Street. For that reason, and because of its size, the project is subject to extensive design review and other approvals by the BRA.

That even includes the BRA board approval of the developer. The board voted Feb. 19 to extend JSP’s tenta-tive designation as developer of the project for another six months. The board has extended the designation five times since Nov. 2006.

Public Infrastructure

JSP’s infrastructure improvement plans include redesigning the intersection of Lamartine Street and Centre Street just south of Columbus Avenue, and realigning the Southwest Corridor bike path’s Centre Street crossing so that path entrances on either side of Centre Street line up better, Faigel said.

The intersection of Columbus Avenue and Ritchie Street would also be redesigned, she said.

The work would also include a number of pedestrian improvements, including widening sidewalks and adding cross walks and bump outs throughout the neighborhood, she said.

Underground utility work would also be undertaken, to insure that the utility infrastructure is adequate to handle the new development.

State and federal funding for those efforts is not yet finalized, and will be contingent on design and en-gineering work JSP plans to complete over the next three months. JSP is now focused on “trying to make sure we are in the best possible position to be shovel-ready by the fall,” Faigel said.

If JSP can meet that shovel-ready benchmark, the state plans to contribute up to $7 million in funding to Jackson Square infrastructure work from its allocation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, according documents available at www.mass.gov/recovery.

That is on top of a $3.1 million Massachusetts Opportunity Relocation and Expansion (MORE) grant tenta-tively designated to the infrastructure project last spring. The final release of those funds is dependent on JSP “demonstrating how we are going to spend it,” Faigel said.

Faigel said it is possible that JSP will be able to complete the infrastructure work for less than the $7 million being offered from the stimulus.

The JPNDC is one of four main partners involved in ongoing plans to redevelop mostly publicly owned land around Jackson Square. The other developers include Urban Edge, which, like JPNDC, is a non-profit community development corporation (CDC); the private, JP-based development firm Mitchell Properties; and the Hyde Square Task Force, a JP-based community organization.

The overall development plan, which includes multiple large-scale residential and mixed-use developments around the square, as well as a community center and a permanent home for JPs Kelly ice skating rink, has experienced major flux in the last few months.

Most recently, Mitchell Properties’ proposed mixed-use development at 225 Centre St. did not receive state affordable housing funds it had hoped for in the latest funding round this month. If those funds had been awarded, construction on the 225 Centre St. project could have begun in early 2010, according to a JSP letter to the BRA requesting an extension of its tentative designation as developer of the project.

Plans for 225 Centre St.—on the corner of Centre and Columbus north of the Jackson Square T station—include 103 rental apartments, including 35 affordable one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, and 16,000 square feet of retail space.

The public funding is on hold, Faigel said, because the state is focused on making sure affordable housing projects that are currently underway get funded.

Meanwhile, Urban Edge, which has had trouble coming up with a viable plan for property on Columbus Avenue it has planned to develop, did not respond to Gazette requests for an update on its efforts.

Urban Edge staffer Noah Maslan did speak to the Gazette about the CDC’s plans to clean up contaminated soil underneath the sidewalk in front of the 1542 Columbus Ave. building that houses its offices.

That building, the Webb Building, is slated for redevelopment in Urban Edges plans. The soil under the sidewalk is currently not a public health risk, but that would work would disrupt it, Maslan said. Many of the sites around Jackson Square have similar issues, he said.

Through the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the CDC has secured a $200,000 grant to clean up the contamination, and a public comment period—a condition of the grant— is currently underway concerning cleanup alternatives. The comment period will end March 23, and Urban Edge will issue an RFP for the work. For a full report on the cleanup options see www.urbanedge.org.

CAC Meetings

The Gazette attempted to attend two meetings of the Jackson Square CAC in the last two months, but was asked to leave on both occasions.

At the first meeting, on Jan. 29 at the Martha Eliot Health Center, a vote was taken and CAC members unani-mously voted to bar the Gazette from the meeting.

That meeting was chaired by CAC vice-chair Rodney Singleton. Singleton did not respond to a list of ques-tions about that incident e-mailed to him by the Gazette.

The questions included requests for comment about whether CAC members, as representatives of their communi-ties, have a responsibility to keep their neighbors informed about ongoing conversations about the Jackson Square project.

They also included a request for comment on whether the CAC had decided to support JSP’s request to the BRA for an extension on its tentative designation as developer of the Jackson Square parcels.

After the Gazette left that meeting, Singleton followed this reporter into the hallway and told him he would be allowed to return after the group was done discussing issues around Urban Edge’s development plans.

The Gazette had previously reported, largely based on information presented at a previous CAC meeting by Urban Edge staffers, including Urban Edge CEO Chrystal Kornegay, that challenges the CDC is facing in coming up with viable development plans might lead to its losing properties it owns on Columbus Avenue to foreclo-sure.

When the Gazette asked if there were other issues of substance on the agenda, Singleton indicated there were not.

The next CAC meeting the Gazette attended was on Feb. 25 at the Academy 1 housing development on Columbus Avenue. Jennifer Spencer, chair of the CAC, said at the beginning of the meeting that she had reached an agreement with Gazette editor Sandee Storey. By that agreement, she said, the Gazette would report on the “sense of the meeting” and not quote people directly.

This reporter declined to follow those terms because they contradicted his understanding of the Gazette’s editorial policy and of internal Gazette conversations about covering the CAC meeting.

“We apparently had a misunderstanding,” Storey later said of Spencer’s description of their conversations.

At the meeting, CAC member Celia Grant said she had been quoted “out of context” in Gazette coverage of previous CAC meetings.

Following the meeting, the Gazette attempted to reach Grant to find out what her specific concerns were and, if appropriate, print a clarification or correction, but received no response.

Generally, the Jackson Square CAC said it wanted to exclude press from the Feb. 25 meeting so that dialogue could be, as CAC member Dan Cruz put it, “unscripted and raw.”

Richard Thal, executive director of the JPNDC, had this to offer in an e-mail this week on behalf of JSP: “The JSP LLC supports inclusive and transparent planning processes for any development project in which we’re involved. We appreciate the work of community representatives and hope and expect that the press will fairly handle the complexities of the issues involved in any major development project.”

An article in the March 4 Boston Globe reported that the Brighton’s Boston College Taskforce, advising the BRA in a role similar to a CAC, recently came under fire for endorsing a compromise with the school on dorm construction that was discussed in closed-door sessions.

For 2007 Gazette coverage of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s declaration that CACs are subject to the Open Meeting Law and the BRA’s response see http://jamaicaplaingazette.com/node/2005.