Office plans unveiled

June 26, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

MBTA will put Parcel U back out this year

FOREST HILLS—Traffic conditions and concerns about continued community oversight of a public land sale process vied for attention with the introduction of local developer WCI Corp’s plans for MBTA-owned land in Forest Hills at a June 16 community meeting at the State Lab on South Street.

At the meeting, MBTA officials said they would put another of the area parcels it put out to bid last year back out to bid in the next three to six months.

While the reception of WCI’s plans for office and commercial space on two parcels on Washington Street south of Ukraine Way was fairly positive among the about 60 meeting attendees, concerns were expressed about the traffic the project could generate on the often congested roadways around the station.

Others said they want to see a coherent plan for continued community oversight of what has become a protracted and tangled land-sale proc-ess.

In April, WCI, a local developer and general contractor that specializes in office buildings catering to non-profits, was the only bidder in a massive land sale by the MBTA of parcels around the Forest Hills T Station.

WCI bid on the two smallest parcels up for sale. Those parcels, known as V and W, straddle Washington Street south of Ukraine Way. They are collectively 81,516 square feet, just shy of two acres. Over half of that space will be left as green space, and a large portion of Parcel V just south of the T station will be handed over to the Department of Conservation and Recreation for a potential extension of the Southwest Corridor Bike Path.

WCI’s proposal is relatively modest compared to a the total of 166 residential units, 62,000 square feet of retail space and close to 200,000 square feet of commercial/office space recommended in the controversial use and design guidelines for the close to eight acres the T was trying to sell. The recommendations came out of the previous phase of the community planning process—known as the Forest Hills Improve-ment Initiative (FHII).

WCI proposes to build an 8,000-square-foot, two-story commercial office building on Parcel V directly south of the station. On Parcel W, across Washington Street, it proposes a 32,000-square-foot two-story office building with ground-floor retail. At the southern end of that building it proposes an about 7,000-square-foot anchor retail space.

The developer plans to relocate its offices to the building on Parcel V, WCI head Kevin Walker said. The local company, which has built a number of office buildings in the Green Street Station area, acts as its own contractor and manages all of its properties. “We are 100 percent leased and we have strong financials,” Walker said. “Financing for parcel V is not an issue.”

He said he hopes to break ground on Parcel V next spring.

Moving forward with Parcel W will require a signed lease with a tenant for the anchor space, he said. “I will be honest, our experience with retail is limited,” Walker said, “I personally thought it would be a good place for a grocer.”

At the meeting, some reiterated a longstanding desire to see a Trader Joe’s grocery store in the area. Others, though, pointed to the Trader Joe’s at the corner of Beacon Street and Harvard Avenue in Brookline as a cautionary tale, claiming that the store exacerbated already congested conditions there.

The other two sites the MBTA was attempting to sell development rights for cover 260,561 square feet, about six acres.

The four parcels, along with a privately owned parking lot and part of the MBTA-owned Arborway bus yard, were the subject of a long and contentious community planning process that started in 2006.

MBTA officials said they will be putting another of the parcels, the 122,799-square-foot parcel U, which runs south from Ukraine Way along Hyde Park Avenue, out to bid again soon.

Asticou Road resident Bernie Doherty said that he was disappointed in the short-term traffic-flow improvements that have been instituted in the course of the FHII process. Those improvements have included repainting crosswalks in the area and a project to coordinate the traffic signals in the area to make car travel times around the station faster.

Those efforts have not relieved congestion, Doherty said. “Something has got to be done about what the traffic problem is in Forest Hills today. Until the city starts to look at this seriously, I don’t see us moving forward on anything.”

Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Senior Architect John Dalzell, who ran the FHII process, said throughout the process that large-scale transportation improvements would be financed by successful bidders on the Forest Hills parcels. The transportation and streetscape improve-ments would eventually be fleshed out based in part on the developers’ proposed designs, he said.

Preliminary talks about streetscape improvements included things like redesigning the intersection of Washington Street and the Arborway on the east side of the station and potentially turning the roadways around the station into a one-way loop.

At the June 16 meeting Dalzell said that it is reasonable to expect that street improvements will be a part of this project. The chal-lenge, he said, is to “craft a transportation and streetscape response that’s the size of this project.”

It is unclear whether WCI will be required to finance any streetscape improvements.

At the recent meeting, Francesca Fordiani who co-chairs the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s Housing and Development Committee, called for the formation of a CAC to provide continuity in community oversight of development in Forest Hills.

“With there being only one response to the [the MBTA’s Invitation To Bid] we have to take each project as it comes,” she said. “Can we create something so there is continuity of vision, even if there are different developers at different times?”

WCI’s project falls under the 42,000-square-foot threshold in the city zoning code for large project design review. That process would require the formation of an Impact Advisory Group (IAG). Sometimes also referred to as Citizens Advisory Committees (CACs), IAGs advise BRA staff about community mitigation for large development projects

While IAG is a formal term codified in the zoning code, the term CAC is used more loosely to refer to community advisory groups convened by the city. A CAC was recently formed, for example, to review proposed streetscape design changes to Centre and South streets, a project not connected to any development.

BRA staffers said they would look into the possibility of convening a Forest Hills CAC.

In an e-mail after the meeting, BRa spokesperson Jessica Shumaker said, “We are not going to form a CAC at this point in time. The current proposed project qualifies for small project review and therefore a CAC is not necessary. Additionally, because the MBTA has no formal timeline for the other parcels, it does not make sense to appoint a CAC at this time.”

The MBTA is still moving forward with plans to sell, though. MBTA staffer Mark Boyle said the T will likely put parcel U back out to bid in the next 3-6 months. The use and design guidelines call for that par-cel to be largely residential.

The more complicated and controversial sale of development rights to parcel S, the Forest Hills Station commuter parking lot, will not be revisited as long as current market conditions last, Boyle said.

That parcel was intended to serve as a commercial core for the neighborhood, with a large central plaza and ground floor retail. Community concerns about housing density led the BRA to recommend office space in-stead of housing for a six-story building it recommended for the site in the use and design guidelines.

At previous meetings, Dalzell warned that the over 150,000 square feet of office space proposed would be a hard sell without a commitment from a major institution. Plans for the site would also be potentially com-plicated by a requirement by the T that no commuter parking spaces be lost.

“Parcel S is complicated. The economic conditions really have to be right,” Boyle said.

He said the community would have “ample opportunity to comment,” on the MBTA’s new ITB before it is re-leased.