Zoning committee supports Walnut Ave. development

October 22, 2010
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The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Zoning Committee voted at its last meeting on Oct. 14 to support the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Project (BHCHP) in its redevelopment of the property at 461 Walnut Ave., the former site of the Barbara McInnis house. The committee approved the project with one vote against and one abstention, in front of a crowd of over 80 people.

The redevelopment of the building has been fraught with controversy, as many neighbors and abutters have been vocal in their opposition to the project as proposed. Many of these neighbors, most of whom live on abutting Montebello Road, were present at the meeting, hoping to stop the project moving forward.

Kyle Robidoux, community organizing assistant director at JPNDC, told the Gazette that the development team, which includes Pine Street Inn (PSI) as well as BHCHP and JPNDC, will present a signed copy of agreements stipulated by the neighbors to the JPNC at its next meeting on Oct. 26.

The Zoning Committee decided to support the project as long as the development team would agree to the following conditions proposed by the neighbors: noise reduction measures; scheduling deliveries and pick-ups during off-peak hours; arranging for the neighbors to have a point person on staff at the facility; participation of the facility in crime watch efforts; neighborhood access to ten parking spaces at the site during non-business hours; community meetings to discuss external improvements to the building, including painting and landscaping; and assurances that the facility would never adopt the Housing First model sometimes used by PSI.

Housing First places chronically homeless individuals into housing without screening, then works with them to get and stay sober, taking medication and staying healthy. Lyndia Downie, executive director of PSI, had previously said that it was extremely unlikely that 461 Walnut Ave. would ever be a Housing First home.

“We’re happy with the outcome. A lot of people have given a lot of thought” to this project, Richard Thal, executive director of JPNDC, said after the meeting. “We know there’s more work to be done to make it as good a project as we can,” he added.

The project needs several zoning variances, Nick Elton, architect for the project, said: for its proximity to Franklin Park, for changing the building’s use to its intended use as a healthcare and multi-family dwelling, for a change in floor area ratio due to an indoor trash room addition, for a lot boundary issue, for fewer parking spaces than legally required and for a lack of off-street loading.

Judy Sullivan, a resident of Montebello Road, said that, because it requires these variances, “This is an illegal project.”

Priscilla Andrade, another abutter, said, “All the people here are not against the whole project. They’re against the details of the project.”

According to the development team, the current zoning use for the building pre-dates the current zoning code, and any development at all on the building would require a zoning variance. The same situation applies to the property boundary issue and the building’s proximity to Franklin Park— it is inherent to the property, and any project would require it.

Fewer parking spaces are asked for because few, if any, residents are expected to own their own cars. The current design of the parking lot would accommodate deliveries without a delivery bay, which is usually required. The trash room addition would house a trash compactor and three small dumpsters, which would otherwise be located outside, visible to neighbors.

David Baron, chair of the Zoning committee, had a narrow scope for supporting the project, looking exclusively at the variances. “It’s hard to imagine a use of this property that would be less impactful,” he said.

Together with JPNDC and PSI, BHCHP, the owner of the property, has been actively working on the redevelopment of the site since June. JPNDC would develop the property, and Paul Sullivan Housing, a subsidiary of PSI, would act as housing service provider and property manager, according to Andrew Winter, real estate director at JPNDC.

Neighbors to the redevelopment have raised concerns over the proposed density, traffic patterns and parking. The original project presented to the neighborhood proposed 33 single-room occupancy (SRO) units, along with another unit for a live-in property manager in the upper two floors, and 20 respite care beds on the ground floor. The parking lot would be redesigned to accommodate fewer parking spaces with more maneuvering room and more green space around the building.

“A lot of the changes we’ve made have been in response to the neighbors,” Thal said. The project reduced the number of units from 33 SROs to 30 efficiency apartments. The parking lot has also been re-designed to accommodate a vehicle exit to Walnut Avenue instead of funneling traffic down Montebello Road, a one-way street.

JPNDC has “made mitigations on traffic, density and design,” Robidoux said.

City Councilor Chuck Turner read from a prepared statement in support of the project that said, “While I have listened to and believe I understand the concerns of the abutters, I believe their concerns are being met by the developer’s plan.”

At the meeting, neighbors against the project asked whether BHCHP and JPNDC had considered fewer, larger family-oriented units, which Thal explained were not feasible. “If two to three family members move into fewer units, there will likely be higher density,” he said. Further, a decrease in the number of units would slash funding for the home, which would reduce the number of support staff available, Thal said.

When an abutter asked whether BHCHP had considered other projects, Robert Taube, executive director of BHCHP, said, “Clearly, for us, this is the best project… it’s the combination of respite care and housing that would drive this project.”

“[BHCHP] is the owner of the building. It’s weird for them to consider anything not their mission,” Terry Mason, a resident of nearby Peter Parley Road, said. This is “not a perfect project, but it’s a lot better than a vacant building.”

This is “housing for people who don’t need [BHCHP’s] emergency care but do need support to continue their recovery,” Turner read from his statement. “I believe this is a very creative way to meet an important societal need.”

Turner; Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Boston’s public health commissioner, and a resident of the neighborhood; representatives from City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley’s office and state Rep. Liz Malia’s office and Colleen Keller, JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, were present.

JPNDC has filed Chapter 121A with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and is expected to go before the BRA board on Nov 16.

In the 121A process, the BRA board considers citywide objectives of a development and all the variances as a whole as well as determining taxation of the property.

Along with the respite care beds and efficiency units, the building would include communal space for residents in the shape of large kitchens, dining rooms and outdoor decks.

BHCHP housed its 90-bed respite care McInnis House at the Walnut Avenue site until it moved to larger quarters in the South End in 2008.

No other organization in the state provides respite care for the homeless, so McInnis House, named after a JP nurse, regularly operates at capacity, according to materials handed out at a Sept. meeting.

Medical respite care is the term used for short-term medical and recuperative services for homeless people too sick to stay in shelters but not sick enough for a hospital stay.

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