Urban Edge proposes new first-phase plans

August 14, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

JACKSON SQ.—Urban Edge presented a conceptual outline of the first phase of new affordable housing devel-opment plans for land it owns on Columbus Avenue to an audience of about 30 people at the Aug. 4 meeting of the Jackson Square Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC).

The developer also plans to study the feasibility of constructing a new home for JP’s Kelly ice skating rink on the corner of Ritchie Street and Columbus Avenue. Some at the meeting said that site was already rejected in earlier phase of the Jackson Square redevelopment planning process.

The housing proposal is for 30 units of affordable rental housing for formerly homeless families, elimi-nating 37 affordable home-ownership units the developer had previously proposed for the first phase. Some at the meeting said they are not happy with a reduction of the number of affordable housing units being built in the scaled-back plans and a shift in focus from affordable home ownership.

But the non-profit developer, one of four non- and for-profit developers partnering in a large-scale rede-velopment of Jackson Square, said it is in a tough spot. It is constrained from building more housing on the site because it directly abuts a city Department of Public Works (PWD) salt shed, the developers said. And it is not able to build home-ownership housing in the short-term because of the housing market slump. [See Side-bar.]

At a CAC meeting in January, Urban Edge CEO Chrystal Kornegay said she was concerned the developer might face foreclosure if it did not come up with a viable development proposal for the Columbus Avenue site soon. In subsequent conversations with the Gazette, both Kornegay and Urban Edge president Mossik Hacobian said foreclosure is not imminent. Hacobian said the developer’s lenders have been “understanding.”

Housing

Urban Edge, after a few major setbacks, is proposing a scaled-back plan for the first phase of development on its complicated site. Instead of constructing any new buildings in the first phase of construction, it is proposing to build a 30,000-square-foot addition to the Webb Building, an about 13,000-square-foot, three-story building on the lot at 1542 Columbus Ave that houses the CDC’s offices.

The upper two floors would be affordable rental housing for formerly homeless families. The 14,000-square-foot ground-floor space would be used for non-profit offices—including Urban Edge’s offices—and program space for classes and other uses.

In his presentation of the plans at the CAC meeting, Urban Edge staffer Noah Maslan stressed that the pro-posal was preliminary. “We want to wait for your feedback before we get into the details. This is an itera-tive process. We want to integrate your feedback meaningfully,” he told the CAC.

Urban Edge’s plans for the site have been through a number of iterations already. The CDC originally pro-posed a new mixed-use building with 37 new affordable home-ownership units and a Department of Youth Services facility. That plan fell through when DYS pulled out in 2008 and, with the collapse of the housing market, public funding for affordable home-ownership development dried up.

Salt shed

Early this year, Urban Edge proposed to replace the DYS building, planned for the rear of the lot along Ritchie Street, with housing for the formerly homeless. That plan received poor reviews from the CAC and was not supported by the city because the parcel abuts a city Public Works Department (PWD) salt shed.

The salt shed, which stores road salt for about half of the city, is essentially an industrial site and it would be inappropriate to build housing next to it, critics of that plan said.

Urban Edge’s plans originally included a reconfiguration and clean up of the salt shed site. Urban Edge president Mossik Hacobian said he has been advocating for the cleanup of the site since 1997.

But Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) project manager Rodney Sinclair said the prospect of cleaning up the shed-site, including building a new storage facility so that the salt would not be piled outside, has always been a long shot.

“We have consistently said we cannot fund [the $15 million project]. When times were good we said we did not have the money,” Sinclair said at the meeting.

He said the city is open to the reconfiguration if the developers can find funding for it.

Hacobian told the Gazette Urban Edge asked the state to include the reconfiguration in its federal funding request for American Relief and Recovery Act, but the project did not make the cut.

“We are operating under the assumption that long-term this condition is going to exist,” said Urban Edge CEO Chrystal Kornegay.

That was frustrating for some members of the CAC, who said cleaning up that site is important both for new residents and the existing community in the neighborhood.

“People’s biggest fear is you change track and nothing gets done,” CAC member David Worrell said of the new plans.

“The problem is the salt shed. If you design around the salt she it is not going to solve the problem,” said CAC member Debbie Lubar.

Jen Faigel—a staff member at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), another member of the Jackson Square Partners (JSP) development team—said JSP would be sitting down with the PWD soon to dis-cuss public infrastructure improvements the developers are planning for Ritchie Street. JSP will talk to PWD about cleaning up the site and “being better neighbors,” Faigel said. At the same time, “We will never give up on reconfiguring it,” she said.

Speaking to the Gazette, Hacobian said he is confident the site will be improved. “Picture Jackson Square redeveloped in five years,” he said. Redevelopment plans for the square include new residential and commercial development, widening many of the sidewalks to improve pedestrian access, and the construction of a new open-air plaza across the street from the Jackson Square T Station. “A PWD salt shed adjacent to it would seem a little out of place. It would be like Tent City with a PWD site in the middle,” he said.

Tent City Apartments is a low- and moderate-income housing development in the South End just outside of Co-pley Square.

Hacobian offered a thumbnail sketch of how Urban Edge plans to proceed. “We will do [affordable rental] hous-ing in the first phase. At the same time we will seek to demonstrate that the rink can be done and is finan-cially viable. Assuming that we can get support from the CAC and the city, we will follow the housing with that project,” he said.

If the housing market turns around and there is movement on the PWD site, Urban Edge will revisit the possi-bility of building ownership housing on the rear of the site, he said.

“This is about intelligent planning and working with the community and the city to come up with something that works,” Hacobian said.

At the meeting, JSP proposed to return next month with an overview of the entire neighborhood redevelopment project and what parts of the plan have changed since the development team made its original proposal.

Kelly Rink

Conversation was muted at the CAC meeting about Urban Edge’s proposal to move the new Kelly Rink from the back of the lot to the corner of Ritchie Street and Columbus Avenue.

The plans for the new rink, which would replace an over-a-decade-old “temporary” outdoor rink on the South-west Corridor Park near the Stony Brook T Station have long been controversial.

Roxbury residents have advocated for the renovation of the nearby Melnea Cass Rink and said constructing a new rink in Jackson Square would be redundant.

At the July CAC meeting, the conversation about the rink was limited to concerns about the new location.

“It’s going to be two blank walls on two main streets. There has got to be something on the corner that in-vites people,” Lubar said.

“It was proposed on the corner before and the CAC adamantly opposed it,” said CAC member Red Burrows.

The old plans for the rink, however, depended on Urban Edge gaining access to some of the PWD-controlled land to the rear of the site.

One rink advocate suggested that the rink does not need to present blank walls to the street, saying the fa-cade could be broken up with windows and murals.

Last year, then state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson secured authorizations for funding in a state environmental bond bill for both the $5.69 million for the Kelly and $4.4 million for the Cass. Wilkerson’s proposal was for the Cass to house indoor sports facilities other than ice-skating.

Building the new rink would likely cost at least $12 million, Hacobian previously told the Gazette.

Steve Glickel of Friends of the Kelly Rink, the group that has been running the temporary rink, said neigh-borhood residents deserve a permanent facility.