BRA approves S. Huntington project

October 26, 2012
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The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) voted to approve a controversial luxury apartment project proposed for 161 S. Huntington Ave. at its Oct. 18 board meeting.

The project is expected to come before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, the next step in getting the City’s approval, on Nov. 13.

“This project is really for transient rich people,” JP resident Jamey Lionette said at a well-attended special Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) meeting Oct. 15. “This type of project is a gateway to get a new demographic in JP and I strongly oppose it.”

The BRA meeting followed the JPNC meeting, where the community was invited to voice its opinion on the project. With the exception of a City Councilor and a local Carpenter’s Union representative who supported the project for the jobs it would create, the feedback to developer Curtis Kemeny was overwhelmingly negative.

Kemeny’s development company, Boston Residential Group, plans to create 196 units consisting of studios and one-, two- and three-bedroom units in a four- to five-story building on the current site of the Home for Little Wanderers.

“We are pleased that the BRA approved the project and praised our significant redesign and increase in the number of affordable units,” Kemeny told the Gazette through his spokesperson, Janey Bishoff. “A building that provides additional rental housing, both market-rate and affordable, will offer housing for people living in the area as well as new residents.”

At a Gazette interview earlier this month, BRA Director Peter Meade said, “I think the developer…has not done the best job I’ve seen done in working with the community.”

He noted that the BRA will hold significant leverage over the project’s design even after its approval by the BRA board.

But Meade also said the project fits some broader trends toward smaller housing units and services geared toward young professionals. The BRA wants Boston to remain a “welcoming city” for all types of people, he said. Citing a quote often attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky, he said the BRA tries to focus on “where the puck is going to be,” meaning that economic development must be ready for forming trends, not just present conditions.

Many elected officials and their representatives were present at the Oct. 15 meeting. Most called for continued community involvement without expressing whether they support or oppose the project, with the exception of City Councilor Mike Ross. Ross’s representative, Johanna Senna, stated that the councilor is “inclined to support” the project, mostly because of nearby Mission Hill’s critical housing shortage.

Most of the negative feedback at the meeting was in response to Kemeny’s proposed rent prices and low number of affordable units. Rents are expected to range from $1,700 to $2,000 for studios to as high as $4,250 for a three-bedroom. Kemeny upped the number of affordable units to 30—just over 15 percent—following community criticism.

Longtime community activist for affordable housing Betsaída Gutierrez was present at the Oct. 15 meeting and asked Kemeny to stand while she stated her strong opposition to such a high volume of luxury housing.

“There’s a crisis of housing. Developers want to make money from our community, they should be providing affordable housing,” Gutierrez said.

Mount Pleasant Home representative Merlin Southwick stated that the Home opposed the project unless 25 percent of the units are priced affordably.

“It is affordability that drives our involvement,” he said.

“I don’t care if the building is shaped like an E or a C. I care if the people I know can live in the neighborhood I love,” JP resident Max Kennedy said, voicing his concern at the possibility of his neighbors getting priced out of the neighborhood.

“[The BPA] engaged Mr. Kemeny several months ago to foster dialogue promoting a more preservation-friendly design. Absent interest by the developer in historic preservation, the Alliance responded to the request of neighborhood leaders to help guide and coordinate advocacy efforts to protect the historic building, based on our experience in that area,” Boston Preservation Alliance (BPA) Executive Director Greg Galer said in a letter to the Gazette.

The BPA advocates for historic preservation projects in Boston that “promote the thoughtful long-term use of our diverse historic resources,” Galer explained.

“We want not simply to preserve what exists, but to leverage the unique character of our neighborhoods into an enhanced quality of life for all our citizens,” he said. “This proposal will demolish all buildings, including the 1914 Knight Building, as well as many historic, landscape-defining trees. We share the neighborhood’s concerns regarding a proposal that destroys a viable historic building for a massive, out of character new structure.”

“We’d rather see something happen than see the 1914 building fall empty,” said John Fitzgerald, the BRA planner assigned to the project.

Kemeny and other members of his design team said that the total cost for the project is expected to be $75 million.

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