The City’s approval of 161 S. Huntington in the face of heavy neighborhood opposition has surprised, and perhaps demoralized, many people. But the big-picture rationales for the project were so strong as to make approval virtually inevitable. Opponents should recognize their significant achievements—including more affordable units and a S. Huntington “corridor plan”—and push for needed reform of the City’s planning process underscored by the area’s controversial developments.
JP opposition was rooted in serious local concerns: further gentrification by a high-end rental project; the loss of a historic building; and physical and aesthetic impact on important parkland.
The City had to weigh other factors, including the pressing need for housing in general and specifically for young professionals in the burgeoning medical and technology fields that help drive our economy and improve our lives. Saying no could mean a large complex sitting vacant and attracting crime. Saying yes would mean immediate cash for the seller, a worthy youth-services nonprofit, and eventual financial benefits to the City’s tax coffers and local businesses.
And of course, there is the fact that an owner of private property ultimately has the right to any legal redevelopment.
The developer here asked for community favors in the form of variances from zoning. He offered very little extra in return for those favors. On the other hand, the variances for density and height are not dramatically different from what the community already allowed at places like Jamaicaway Tower and Sherrill House.
Opponents still got increased affordable units. They also got an unprecedented corridor plan that is late, but not too late, and will greatly influence the future of the Goddard House property and help coordinate traffic and other impacts.
The surprise factor for some opponents may be because they believed that in commenting to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, they were dealing with a City planning agency. In fact, the BRA is a quasi-governmental independent authority that exists to promote development and is self-funded by fees on projects it approves and by acting as one of the city’s biggest landlords. Under current Director Peter Meade, the BRA is exceptionally responsive to community concerns. But at its core, the BRA is still a 1950s “urban renewal” dinosaur.
Boston should have a separate planning agency that is focused on community input and answers to local officials, like virtually every other major city already does. (Indeed, Boston used to have one, too, until the BRA swallowed it 50 years ago.) It is doubtful that such an agency would have come to a different conclusion about 161 S. Huntington, but community input likely would have mattered more. And a City planning agency likely would have been proactive about master-planning the area and such sites as the 105A S. Huntington lot.