Residents say they like groceries, hate traffic

February 19, 2010
By

David Taber

BTD responds with traffic fixes

FOREST HILLS—Local developer WCI Corp. received a fairly positive reception at a Feb. 3 community meeting to discuss its development plans for two small parcels in Forest Hills that could include space for a small grocery store.

But the discussion, like many previous conversations about development in the area—including the first meeting about WCI’s project last summer—was half concerned with the project and half with long-standing complaints about area traffic.

The developer “appears to be committed to producing a quality product for our neighborhood,” local resident Bernie Doherty said at the meeting. But, he said, on the traffic congestion front, “The city has done absolutely nothing to address our concerns.”

In response to Gazette requests for comment about traffic issues in Forest Hills, James Gillooly, a deputy commissioner from the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), said there have been glitches in traffic monitoring and traffic light synchronization equipment in the area.

“There is no official top ten list” for BTD priority maintenance projects, Gillooly said, but following Gazette inquiries, fixing problems at Forest Hills has moved to the top of the list, he said. “Your inquiry got us more focused.”
Development

WCI is a local developer and contractor that has built at least four local office buildings, most of them in the neighborhood around the Green Street T Station. It is proposing to build two office buildings with ground-floor retail near the Forest Hills T Station.

The plots flank Washington Street south of Ukraine Way on the Arboretum side of the station. WCI won development rights for them last year when it was the only bidder in an MBTA land sale.

Since the developer first presented its plans this summer, there has been one significant change to its calculations, said architect Ed Forte, principal of the JP-based Forte Architecture + Design.

One narrow strip of land running through the larger lot, on the Arboretum side of Washington Street, is owned by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, he said. Negotiations between WCI and Boston Water and Sewer were unsuccessful and the developer is not allowed to build on that strip.

That means the building’s footprint has been reduced, and to compensate, WCI has added one story to each of the buildings, making them each three stories.

On the small lot, on the T station side of the street, WCI plans an approximately 12,000-square-foot building with ground-floor retail. On the larger parcel on the Arboretum side, the developer plans a 32,000-square-foot building, with a 7,000-square-foot anchor retail space on the ground floor. Because of a 17-foot grade on the site, the larger building will have a second, smaller, ground floor retail space at the low end of the building.

WCI head Kevin Walker said the developer is working aggressively to find a small grocer to move into that space.

Forty-five percent of the over 80,000 square feet of land WCI acquired from the MBTA will remain open space, he said.

The plans include two small parks on the north side of the lots, near Ukraine Way, and a new traffic signal and pedestrian crossing, said landscape architect Ray Dunetz, another JP resident.

Plans for the larger building also include space for a plaza in front of the building.

WCI plans to include about 50 on site parking spaces and add one-hour on-street parking in front of the buildings. That is about half of the number of parking spaces normally called for on similar projects, Walker said.

The street work will preserve existing bike lanes between Roslindale and Forest Hills, Dunetz said.

Local resident Chris DeSisto, who is also a JP developer, asked Walker if he would commit in writing to renting the anchor space in the large building to a grtocer, but Walker declined.

“We are committed to [bringing] a grocer into the neighborhood,” he said.

Forte has worked on a number of WCI’s Jamaica Plain projects, and Forest Hills resident Carol Pryor said his efforts “look kind of boxy.”

Forte said he would look at ways to “articulate” the buildings.

A small group of four or five trade union representatives—seen after the meeting chatting with City Councilor At-Large and Forest Hills resident Felix Arroyo, a former union organizer—attended the meeting and encouraged Walker to use union labor for construction.

WCI acts as its own contractor. Walker said he has historically hired both union and non-union sub-contractors.
Traffic

Much of the meeting was taken up with complaints about traffic in the area, particularly the section of South/Washington Street directly abutting the Forest Hills T Station and at the intersection of South Street and the Arborway/New Washington Street.

That area is often snarled with car and bus traffic, residents said.

“I question whether grocers and retailers will be interested if the traffic problem is not solved,” local resident Kathy Kottaridis said at the meeting.

Some residents complained about traffic on the Hyde Park Avenue side of the T Station. But local resident and Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council member Pam Bender said traffic on that side of the station had improved in recent years after the traffic signals were synchronized.

On the Arboretum side, “It is stunning that the city hasn’t done anything about it,” she said.

Speaking to the Gazette last week, Gillooly said the city has done something, but there have been some glitches. The traffic signals on that side of the street are supposed to be coordinated and monitored, but there is a problem with the remote communication system between city hall and the traffic lights, he said.

The problem is intermittent, he said, and could be something as small as a loose wire that comes disconnected “when a heavy truck rumbles by.” To regain remote access, the BTD has to reboot the entire system, by which point the traffic light coordination can have gone completely off-kilter.

There are larger structural issues to deal with in the Forest Hills area, but if the BTD can work out the bugs in the system “things will be somewhat better,” he said.

For his part, Walker said there is little he can do about those structural problems. The project is going to have little impact on circulation in the area, said Ken Cram of Traffic Solutions, a traffic consultant WCI hired to evaluate the project.

Cram also said that, thanks to the lack of development in the current economy, and fewer people buying new cars, it is unlikely traffic will get worse in the area in the near future.

But lack of development also means promised fixes to infrastructure problems are being put off, said Doherty.

The MBTA had planned to sell off two much larger land parcels in the area at the same time it sold the small lots to WCI last year. Prior to that Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) conducted a multi-year community planning process to develop a community vision for the development of those lots and other local parcels slated for redevelopment. At the time, BRA officials said major streetscape infrastructure improvements would largely be financed by those larger developers.

One privately-owned lot considered in that process, the Fitzgerald Parking Lot on the Forest Hills Cemetery side of the station, may be sold in a foreclosure auction early next month.

At a recent meeting on planned improvements to the MBTA’s #39 bus route, a design consultant said proposed infrastructure improvements for that project could include a new signalized crossing and signal upgrades at the corner of South Street and the Arborway/New Washington. That proposal has not yet gone through the city approval process.

The JPNC will review WCI’s proposal at its upcoming meeting Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. at Curtis Hall, 20 South St. Another BRA hosted meeting on the plans will take place on March 3 at 7 p.m. at the State Lab at 305 South St. [See JP Agenda.]

John Ruch contributed to this article.

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