More funds are coming for Jackson Sq. improvements

June 26, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

Youth Center delayed

JACKSON SQUARE—Developers Jackson Square Partners (JSP) have secured funding for neighborhood public in-frastructure improvements, but construction of a “youth and families center” in the neighborhood is being delayed, the JSP team said in a recent meeting at the Gazette office.

“This is one of the few projects in the city that is actually making progress,” said Mossik Hacobian, president of Urban Edge, a community development corporation (CDC) that is one of the partners.
MORE grant

In May, 2008, $3.1 million in funding for the project from the Massachusetts Opportunity Relocation and Expansion (MORE) grant was first announced at a public event attended by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino.

Papers were signed finalizing that funding about a month-and-a half ago, Mitchell said. The $3.1 million covers less than half of the estimated $7.8 million cost of infrastructure improvements for the area. But, Mitchell said, JSP was able to strike a deal with the city allowing the developer to use about $600,000 of the money to complete engineering work for the entire project and use the remainder to get started on the first phase of work.

That will mean the project will be “extremely shovel ready” for future rounds of public funding, he said.

“We will be in a position to build the first improvements—the first $2.5 million will be really transformative—and we will be in a posi-tion to do even more.” Thal said.

Youth and Families Center

At the same time, the developers also reported that economic conditions are forcing delays for some aspects of the project, most notably the construction of a 30,000-square-foot “Youth and Families Center” planned for the area.

The heads of the organizations that make up the JSP development team—Hacobian; Richard Thal of CDC the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Develop-ment Corporation (JPNDC); Claudio Martinez of the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF); and Bart Mitchell of for-profit Mitchell Properties—sat down with the Gazette on June 16 to discuss the project’s progress.

As the Gazette previously reported, JSP hopes to move forward with public infrastructure work in the area, and its first construction project—a 103 unit mixed income rental apartment building with ground floor retail—in the next year.

In a document outlining recent progress on the project—planned to eventually include hundreds of units of mixed-income housing, 90,000 square feet of office and retail space, a “Youth and Families Center” and a recreation center in the area—the developers described “new chal-lenges” for the planned community space.

“Since the summer of 2008, the changes in the US economy have put grant funding and public funding for community projects in short supply. As a result…we will not be able to build a new [$13 million] Youth and Family Center until the economy recovers. Yet the team is committed as ever to maintaining and expanding youth programming in the area,” the update says.

The developers declined to elaborate on alternatives until they have discussed them with the Jackson Square Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC)—a city-appointed group charged with assisting the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in its oversight of the project. [See sidebar.]

The Youth and Families Center is a joint project of two of the developers, the JPNDC and the HSTF—a community organization making its first foray into development.

Speaking about the Jackson Square project in general, HSTF director Martinez said, “Everyone on this team has, over the last five years, invested incredible amounts of resources [into the Jackson Square project] and we are not going to get any type of return anytime soon. The effort and risks should not be underestimated.”
Sidewalks, etc.

But there was brighter news, too.

The public infrastructure component of the project will include streetscape and—to support 10 planned buildings—utility upgrade work on Columbus Avenue and Centre. Ritchie and Amory Streets.

The streetscape improvements are still in the engineering phase. It is
likely they will be completed in at least two phases. And once ground is broken it will take at least a year or two to complete the first round, the developers said.

The overall infrastructure plans include:

• Widening sidewalks along Centre Street between Lamartine Street and Columbus; along Columbus from Amory Street to the Jackson Square T Station bus entrance; and on a few blocks of Ritchie Street.

On Ritchie Street, Hacobian said, describing the changes as sidewalk improvements “is overstating what’s there now.”

• Adding sidewalks ‘bump-outs” on the northeastern and southwestern sides of the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Centre and Ritchie streets; and on-street parking and a “planted median” on Columbus Avenue.

In the 1970s, Columbus was intended to be part of an extension of I-95 and was “unduly widened,” Mitchell said. Community opposition to that plan eventually led to the construction of the Southwest Corridor Park and the Orange Line subway.

• Widening the current bus entrance to Jackson Square T Station so cars will be able to access a 95-space parking plaza being built in conjunction with Mitchell’s development at 225 Centre St.

• Installing sidewalks and streetlights and other improvements for a new roadway that will connect Amory Street to Centre. That work is planned for phase one of the project, but new roadway connecting the streets will not be laid until buildings planned for the parcel south of Amory on the corner of Columbus and Centre are built in a later phase, said Richard Thal, executive director of the JPNDC.

• Repainting and realigning street crossings throughout the area, including the Southwest Corridor path crossing at Lamartine and Centre Streets.

• Constructing a new plaza and open-air “retail arcade” across the street from the Centre street entrance to the T Station.

The retail arcade will be built directly in front of an MBTA electrical sub-station across the street from the T Station. The plaza will be located to the left of the sub-station. Another electrical sub-station on the land between Amory and Centre sits on private property owned by the electric company NSTAR and cannot be redeveloped using public funds, Mitchell told the Gazette in a phone interview. There are plans to redevelop that parcel in the future, he said.

• Adding new streetlights and replacing existing lights with “acorn” street lights—a historic Victorian design so named because the light fixtures look like acorns.

Once work begins, extensive utility upgrades, including under part of the Southwest Corridor Park, will be the first order of business, the developers said.

But “there will definitely be surface-level improvements,” Thal said, “People have been waiting for years and we know there is a ‘we will believe it when we see it’ type of attitude.”

Mitchell said the developers are playing a unique role for an urban development team.

“JSP is really acting as an urban land developer,” he said, “In new suburban and rural developments, the first job is laying out streets and doing infrastructure work. Then they usually sell to other developers.”

The engineering plans for those improvements are still in their early phases, but are far enough along that they can begin to be reviewed in earnest by the Jackson Square CAC.

At meetings earlier this year, CAC members had sought assurances that streetscape improvements planned for the area are taking the find-ings of a recently completed transportation study for the Highland Park neighborhood into account. That study was released last month.

225 Centre

Funding for Mitchell’s main construction project—a 103 mixed-income rental apartment with ground-floor retail at 225 Centre St., on the corner of Columbus and Centre below the T Station—is also progressing.

That project secured about $7 million in state and federal funding in April. That was enough for Mitchell to tell the Gazette at the time that he was confident construction would move ahead on the project by the end of the calendar year. Since then 225 Centre has commitments for close to $50 million more, including a commitment from the quasi-public Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency (MassHousing) to issue $45 mil-lion in bonds for the project. Those bonds have also found a likely buyer in the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust (HIT), according to the JSP update.

That funding is enabling Mitchell, and JSP, to take advantage of the silver lining of the economic downturn: decreased supply and con-struction costs, which will shave about $2 million off of construction costs for the 225 Centre St. project.

Other plans

Still, the downturn and other issues have blown the Jackson Square project somewhat off course.

JPNDC and HSTF’s Youth and Family Center was supposed to be part of phase one of the redevelopment plan. And Urban Edge in phase one originally proposed to build a department of Youth Services facility and 37 units of low and moderate income home-ownership units with ground-floor retail on the parcel they own on the corner of Columbus avenue and Ritchie street. That plan fell apart after the Department of youth Services backed out.

An alternate plan put forward by Urban Edge to build a homeownership development for formerly homeless families raised concerns among CAC members and the city because of the proposed site’s proximity to a city Public Works Department salt shed.

That plan was never formally proposed, and Urban Edge has not come out with a new plan for the site.

Early this year, the Gazette reported on a CAC meeting where Urban Edge staffers expressed concerns that the property—including the CDC’s own offices in the Webb Building at 1562 Columbus Ave—might get foreclosed on.

In a phone interview this week, Hacobian said Urban Edge’s lenders—non-profit affordable housing lenders MassHousing and Boston Community Capital—“know why we purchased [the property] and why it is now partially vacant, and they continue to work with us.”

Up until about a year ago, the first two stories of the Webb building—a three-story building that includes the CDC’s offices on the third floor—and the first story of another, were rented by two DYS programs, he said. But the program in the one story building was consolidated with another program at a different location, he said.

Urban Edge is expecting the other DYS program to move out in the next year as well, Hacobian said.

While Urban Edge is not planning to build anything soon, “Part of our plans is to figure out what to do with that space that is consis-tent with the overall plans for Jackson Square,” Hacobian said.

He declined to comment on whether those plans might include interim youth and families programming space.

But, at the July 16 meeting with the Gazette, some of the the developers comments did frame the project as more than just a brick-and-mortar effort.

In addition to that, “there has been a human capacity development component that all of us have been extremely aware of,” Martinez said.

And that component can operate on a much different scale than a multi-million-dollar development project. Mitchell said that at a recent meeting with MBTA officials about the Jackson Square T Station, the officials said the station has seen zero graffiti in the wake of a now four-year-old youth mural painting initiative undertaken by HSTF.

And while hundreds of people have participated, it has been 20 years since community conversations about Jackson Square began, he said, “A new crop of people are saying, ‘How did you decide all that?’ And that is how it is supposed to be for a project that will be here for more than a century,” Hacobian said.