Zoning committee approves WCI proposal

April 2, 2010
By

David Taber

FOREST HILLS—It took two meetings, but local developer WCI Corp. won approval last week from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Zoning Committee for its proposal to rezone two parcels it plans to build on.

WCI plans to build two office buildings with ground-floor retail south of Ukraine Way flanking Washington Street on the Arboretum side of the Forest Hills T Station.

The plans have generally met with community support—especially plans to lease one of the new retail spaces to a small grocer.

But according to the JPNC Housing and Development Committee, the plans do not meet the Forest Hills Use and Design Guidelines. Those guidelines for the development of six parcels in Forest Hills were put together in the course of a controversial multi-year, Boston Redevelopment Authority-led community process.

At the JPNC’s regular monthly meeting March 23, council Housing and Development Committee chair Steve Laferriere presented a letter the committee drafted asking the BRA to amend the guidelines for development in the area to reflect that WCI is not building housing. But Laferrierre stressed at the meeting that the point of the letter was not to criticize WCI’s plans, and the council decided the letter should be rewritten to reflect that more specifically.

WCI did not return Gazette phone calls for this article.

Zoning

The property WCI plans to build on—put out to bid for development last year by the MBTA—is currently zoned as open space, forbidding any development, Zoning Committee chair David Baron told the Gazette in a recent phone interview.

WCI’s proposes to create a new zoning designation—the Forest Hills Neighborhood Shopping Sub-district, he said.

Baron said that would allow WCI to build, but also allows the community to have a hand in writing the zoning, giving it “specific control over what uses are allowed, conditional and forbidden.”

Community conversation about that question took two full meetings, one on March 18 and one on March 25, Baron said.

At the end of the first meeting—attended by about 40 people—the zoning committee proposed to WCI that they make any use in the buildings conditional, Baron said.

That would mean there would be a community review process for any business that moved in. WCI said that proposal was untenable because it would scare off investors, Baron said. But the developer came back to a March 25 meeting—attended by about 20 community members—with a counterproposal including a specific list of allowed uses. Those included the sale of food, baked goods, groceries, drugs, clothing, dry goods, books, paint and hardware.

Everything else would be conditional, Baron said, except for billiard halls, check cashers, pawnshops and laboratories, which would be forbidden.

A zoning variance would be required both for conditional and forbidden uses, but proposals for forbidden businesses are subject to a higher level of scrutiny, Baron said.

The location-specific zoning will also only require 0.75 parking spaces for every thousand square feet of floor space, significantly lower than the traditional zoning requirement for neighborhood shopping districts, but in line with transportation oriented development for development projects with easy access to public transportation.

WCI still needs approval for the zoning changes from the BRA board and the city Zoning Commission. It also needs approval from the BRA board because the buildings are large enough to meet ther requirements for small project design review.

Housing and Development

The Housing and Development Committee’s letter, a draft of which was given to the Gazette, asks the BRA to amend the Use and Design Guidelines so that “up to 46 units” of housing proposed for the parcels WCI is developing are included in the other parcels.

The MBTA put the parcels WCI is developing out to bid last year along with two other larger parcels. In the wake of the economic collapse there has been little appetite for the land from large-scale developers. The one non-MBTA owned parcel considered during the FHII process, the 2-acre Fitzgerald parking lot was recently foreclosed on and sold to a new owner—a parking management company that intends to continue to use the land for commuter parking for the foreseeable future. [See related article.]

In the letter, the Housing and Development Committee also urges the BRA to keep its eye on the ball when it comes to traffic and streetscape improvements. “We encourage the BRA to continue to look at the improvements needed for the district as a whole, and to ensure that the staggered development process that is now occurring does not interfere with the ability to coordinate district-wide improvements,” the draft letter says.

JPNC chair Andrea Howley told the Gazette the letter was finalized early this week, but it was unclear if it had been sent to the BRA. The BRA did not respond to a Gazette request for comment by press time.