JPNC supports Jamaica Hills design overlay proposal

David Taber

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) voted to support a proposal to designate Jamaica Hills a Design Overlay District (DOD) at its June 29 meeting—a designation that could help preserve the neighborhood as a museum of historic suburban architecture.

Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) senior architect Michael Cannizzo told the JPNC that the BRA and the Boston Landmarks Commission had reviewed the proposal—put forward by Louder’s Lane resident Peter Welsh—and plan to recommend that it be adopted. The designation would mean new development and major exterior renovations to existing buildings in the area would be subject to BRA design review to make sure they fit with the historic character of the neighborhood, even if they do not require zoning review.

There are currently seven DODs in Jamaica Plain. Welsh’s proposal was “puzzling” at first because, unlike other DOD areas, the Jamaica Hills neighborhood is not defined by a uniform style of architecture, Cannizzo told the council.

But the neighborhood is a museum of suburban-style development, he said. It “represents the development of suburbia in Boston” from the 1700s to the present, Cannizzo said.

Design review, by itself, cannot prevent anyone from building on land that they own, he said. The neighborhood’s DOD status would mean that any permits filed for construction that falls under the DOD guidelines would be subject to a 45-day delay period for review by the BRA. Usually, the JPNC ends up reviewing and making recommendations on plans for those projects through its Zoning Committee.

While a property owner looking to build could technically receive a permit after the 45 days without participating in the city design review process, Cannizzo said, he has never heard of a case where that happened.

Most builders want to maintain positive relationships with the community, he said.

JPNC member Jesse White said she was concerned that the designation would be used to block affordable multi-family development in the neighborhood, but Cannizzo said the area is already zoned for single-family housing.

“We really don’t want McMansions,” Jamaica Hills resident Maria Morelli told the JPNC. “They will drive prices up and drive people like me out.” Morelli said she lives in 1960s-style ranch house.

Cannizzo said large new houses that don’t fit into the neighborhood context are a real possibility in Jamaica Hills because there are a number of large lots in the neighborhood.

He said that the BRA would have to look at the surrounding context block-by-block rather than across the neighborhood as a whole because of the diverse architecture in the area.

“We view the BRA as providing mediation, not control,” Morelli said.

The JPNC voted to support the DOD designation with one JPNC member, Jesse Abair, voting against the designation. “I think with DODs what they are trying to do is freeze the existing character [of neighborhoods]. It is a form of NIMBY-ism at the end of the day, based on subjective views. It is not a good long-term development strategy,” Abair told the Gazette after the meeting.

NIMBY stands for “not in my back yard”—a common term for used to describe negative local reactions to development proposals.

Welsh—who headed the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) under Mayor Ray Flynn and served for a time as current Mayor Thomas Menino’s chief of staff—attended the JPNC meeting, but did not comment on his proposal. He was not available for follow-up comment by press time.

The Gazette previously reported that Welsh was inspired to propose DOD status last spring after he learned that work on a new house across the street from his—at 53 Louder’s Lane—might soon begin.

A Gazette search of the Inspectional Services Department online permits database did not find any existing work permits for that address. ISD spokesperson Lisa Timberlake did not respond to Gazette phone calls by press time.

The Jamaica Hills DOD proposal is scheduled to be presented to the BRA board for a vote at its July meeting and to be heard by the city Zoning Commission in September.

JP’s other DODs are Glenvale Park, Green Street, Hyde Square, Monument Square, Sumner Hill, Walnut/Sigourney and Williams Street.

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