Big land, small offer

March 20, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

Forest Hills properties lure few buyers

FOREST HILLS—Bidding on MBTA-owned parcels around the Forest Hills T Station ended in early March with a whimper, throwing the future of major public infrastructure improvements long-sought by community members into doubt.

March 11 was the date the MBTA’s real estate arm, Transit Realty Associates, had set for announcing “successful bidders” for four developable parcels around the station. When that day came, it had only one bidder to announce. Jamaica Plain-based WCI Corp., an office-space developer, offered $835,000 for the two smallest parcels in the offering.

The MBTA had set the minimum bid for those parcels at $475,000, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said in an e-mail to the Gazette. That bid is now “undergoing the T’s evaluation process,” he said.

Even if the bid is accepted, that will mean less than a quarter of the close to eight acres put out for bid claimed.

Community residents, many of whom participated in an extended community visioning process for the sites and the redevelopment of the neighborhood around the station, said they were not surprised by the lack of interest from developers.

“I’m hopeful that the economic situation will change. Part of me is a little disappointed that there weren’t a dozen developers clamoring [for the parcels]. I would hope they would see what we see, but its just not the [right] economic situation, we all understand,” said Francesca Fordiani, who sits on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council and chairs its Housing and Development committee.

The two parcels WCI is interested in—known as V and W—are collectively only 81,516 square feet. The other parcels the MBTA offered are much larger. Parcel U is a comparatively vast expanse, stretching for 122,799 square feet south of Ukraine Way on Hyde Park Avenue. Parcel S is the 137,662-square-foot Forest Hills commuter parking lot on Hyde Park. That parcel was offered for development via a long-term lease on the condition that the commuter parking spaces be integrated into the design.

All four parcels, along with other sites around Forest Hills, were the subject a contentious community process that ran between November 2006 and last summer, the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII).

There were 10 meetings between 2006-2008, regularly attended by over 100 people. Community members debated what percentage of the expected hundreds of new housing units that should be designated as affordable. Tempers sometimes flared over whether developers should be allowed to propose five- and six-story buildings on the larger parcels.

There were also discussions about major public infrastructure improvements to the area, including developing a public plaza “village center” at the MBTA commuter lot site according to the uses and Design Guidelines developed through the FHII process.

The process also included some conversation about things like redesigning intersections and widening sidewalks around the station and potentially turning the roadways around Forest Hills into a one-way loop. Some quick-fix improvements, including improving traffic-signal coordination at the intersections to move traffic through the area more quickly, were implemented during the process.

The bulk of the conversation about long-term improvements, though, was deferred until developers were picked for the sites. The logic behind that was that developer’s plans could have a significant impact on things like traffic flow in the area, and they would likely be ex-pected to invest in the improvements, Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Senior Architect John Dalzell, who ran the process, told the Ga-zette at the time.

It is unclear where all that now stands. Pesaturo told the Gazette that Transit Realty staff is going to consult with the BRA and the FHII working group before making any decisions on future steps.

Fordiani, who is also a member of the working group, said she doubts the communities’ efforts will go to waste. “The process with the working group and the community was good and valuable,” she said. “It gave a lot of people the opportunity to get involved and [the guidelines produced] will be useful going forward.”

The BRA did not respond to Gazette requests for comment.

Forest Hills-area resident Bernie Doherty—a working group member—said request for comment from the Gazette was the first news he had heard about the bidding.

WCI Corp.

WCI appears to be the latest incarnation of local developer John Walker’s business. The company lists Walker-owned buildings, including office buildings at 500 Amory St., 555 Amory St. and 3313 Washington St. on its web site.

Those three buildings and others Walker has built in and around the Brookside neighborhood have mostly been office buildings. The devel-oper has a reputation for leasing to non-profits. Ensuring Stability through Action in our Community (ESAC), a multi-purpose social service agency has offices at 3313 Washington. Bottom Line, a non-profit that supports immigrant and low-income students in the college application process and through their college years, is at 500 Amory. Ethos, a service provider for seniors, has offices at 555 Amory.

The community guidelines for the sites they bid on call for residential and commercial uses on the site, including 40 residential units on parcel W, a wedge-shaped property on the corner between Washington Street and South Street on the arboretum side of the station.

Repeated Gazette calls to WCI Corp. went unreturned.

Doherty, who used to review Walker projects when he sat on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Zoning Committee, said he looks forward to working with the local developer.

“I think he is a fair man,” Doherty said.

Kevin Leary, who until recently chaired the JPNC zoning committee, said Walker has in the past, “had some issues he tried to gloss over” in his presentations before the committee, Sometimes meetings about those projects would “become contentious when neighbors tried to impose [their visions] for architecture and design,” he said.

But Walker “is not Bicon,” Leary said, referring to the controversial dental business at 501 Arborway that has deliberately skirted commu-nity input in recent expansion efforts. “He has not evaded the community process and I do not think he would do so with Forest Hills either.”

Once the Walker proposal is vetted, the MBTA it will hold a community meeting to announce and introduce the successful bidder, according to a timeline provided by the MBTA.

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