BRA approves Walnut Ave. project

November 19, 2010
By
PARKSIDE—The board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) approved the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation’s (JPNDC) request for zoning relief under chapter 121A for the proposed redevelopment of 461 Walnut Ave. with one abstention at its Nov. 16 meeting at City Hall.“We’re delighted with the results,” Richard Thal, executive director of JPNDC, told the Gazette. “It’s been a tremendous amount of work.”

The redevelopment of the building has been fraught with controversy, as neighbors and abutters, most of them from Montebello Road, have been vocal both in their support of and opposition to the project. Including elected officials and their representatives, 26 people spoke in favor of the project and 14 spoke against at the BRA meeting.

This project has been under “intense scrutiny at every step,” Thal told the Gazette after the hearing.

The owner of the property, Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), has been actively working on the redevelopment of the site since June, after teaming up with JPNDC and Pine Street Inn (PSI).

The developers’ proposal would make the former Barbara McInnis House, across from White Stadium in Franklin Park, into a respite care facility with 20 beds on the ground floor and 30 studio apartments for medically frail and elderly formerly homeless people on the upper two floors, according to plans presented by project architect Nick Elton, from Elton and Hampton Architects.

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.

JPNDC would develop the property, and Paul Sullivan Housing, a subsidiary of PSI, would act as housing service provider and property manager, Andrew Winter, real estate director at JPNDC, previously told the Gazette.

The main point of contention at the meeting was JPNDC’s plan to file their requested zoning variances under chapter 121A, which would lead the BRA board to consider citywide objectives in relation to the project, grant all the variances as a group and determine taxation of the property.

The building’s previous use as a respite care facility was tax-exempt, but its new use will not be because BHCHP will accept rent from its tenants, so BHCHP will resume paying property taxes. The Chapter 121A approval will allow the City to work out a pre-negotiated tax rate with BHCHP, as well as provide all the necessary zoning relief.

Many neighbors were against this use of chapter 121A, because its primary use is to redevelop large areas of “blighted, decadent or decayed” property.

“I’m offended someone would consider this area as blighted,” Jason Heinbeck, a neighbor, told the BRA board. He added that developers should “apply for variances like everyone else.”

“The site cannot be considered blighted, substandard or decadent,” David Nagle, another resident, said.

Chapter 121A is not limited to large areas, however. Joseph Lieber, the attorney for the developers from the firm of Klein Hornig, explained that chapter 121A would apply to 461 Walnut Ave. only.

Christopher Supple, the abstaining vote on the BRA board, said, “nobody is saying the neighboring properties are blighted.”

Lieber said that the project should qualify for 121A due to the “detrimental, unsafe” conditions inside the building and because of the “age and obsolence” of the building.

The building has been vacant and falling into disrepair since BHCHP moved McInnis House to a larger location in the South End in 2008, according to developers. It was originally built in the 1960s as a nursing home.

According to the presentation, the building’s elevators are non-functional, asbestos is present, and portions of the electrical and plumbing systems are sub-standard, among other problems.

“This is a situation where the owners allowed the building to fall into disrepair in order to benefit from 121A,” Moira Meehan, a neighbor, said.

Supple said, “we’re required to follow the law here,” and that the property only had to be blighted or decadent or decayed, not all three at once.

“Most of the people on Montebello Road are opposed to the size and scope of this project, not the fact that it would service homeless people,” former Montebello Road resident Joe Fallon added. “We believe the developers have all the best intentions.”

Judy Sullivan, another neighbor, said, “We are not here to vote on the merits of this program—this is a great program.”

“If we were drawing on a blank slate, we would never put a homeless facility next to a residential neighborhood,” Supple said, noting that there are no blank slates in Boston.

Most of the community input, however, was in favor of the project. Many neighbors said they look forward to having BHCHP as a neighbor again and welcoming them back to the neighborhood. Supporters included Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Boston’s public health commissioner, who lives nearby.

“BHCHP was a great institutional partner” to the neighborhood, Ferrer said.

“I would be proud to call BHCHP a neighbor again,” Montebello Road resident Julianna Brody-Fialkin said.

Sharon Morison, a nurse for BHCHP, said she recently met some of her former patients who are now living at PSI’s Bowditch School building on Green Street. Noting how well they were doing now that they had homes, she said “If anything works, it’s housing and healthcare together.”

After an hour-and-a-half of listening to community input, the BRA voted in favor of granting the project chapter 121A status.

“The BRA vote was the result of extensive and intensive support of community and public officials,” Kyle Robidoux, community organizing assistant director at JPNDC, told the Gazette.

“Today was a big step,” Robert Taube, executive director of BHCHP, told the Gazette after the meeting. “We’re gratified to be a step closer to bringing [the project] to reality and excited to be able to make this supportive housing real.”

The next step for JPNDC and BHCHP now is securing the remaining funds for the $10.1 million project.

“Getting the zoning approval is a major step in getting that,” Taube said.

If all goes well, the developers hope to break ground in 2012, Thal said.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diáz, City Councilors John Connolly and Ayanna Pressley and Colleen Keller, JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, were present and spoke in favor of the project.

BHCHP is the only organization in the state to provide respite care for the homeless, so McInnis House, named after a JP nurse, regularly operates at capacity, according to materials handed out at a September community 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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