Washington St. master plan is in early stages

May 22, 2015
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A long-awaited City master plan for the Washington Street corridor is in its early planning stages. But a recent well-publicized walk-through and report by an advisory team was not a direct part of the master plan, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

In fact, the master plan is still in the research stages and has no set timeline, including for public input, BRA spokesperson Nick Martin said. Meanwhile, development continues to be a hot and sometimes controversial topic in the area, with protesters recently targeting the forthcoming 3200 Washington St. project.

“Each planning process is unique…and there is no one-size-fits-all approach,” Martin said, explaining that the process will take time.

Members of the Stonybrook Neighborhood Association and Egleston Square Main Streets requested a Washington Street master plan about two years ago. The BRA repeatedly indicated interest in creating such a plan, but nothing concrete happened.

In part, that was because the BRA long avoided creating such master plans. Under Mayor Martin Walsh, it has altered course and ultimately will create a citywide master plan, but turning the ship around appears to be taking time.

However, the move toward a Washington Street plan has been confusing.

In a speech to the Chamber of Commerce late last year, Walsh referred to creating “growth zones” or “strategic planning areas,” and expressed a desire to build middle-income housing along the Orange Line, including in Jamaica Plain. He did not specifically mention Washington Street or describe a specific policy or process.

However, Martin said those comments from the mayor essentially began the Washington Street corridor planning process.

Since then, Martin said, the BRA and the City Department of Neighborhood Development have begun research work on the master plan. That involves an inventory and assessment of current land use, zoning, demographics, transportation and a host of other issues.

Meanwhile, in a separate move last fall, four City of Boston officials were named among national fellows of the Rose Center for Public Leadership and Land Use at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) based in Washington, D.C. Fellows were chosen from four cities, and this year are visiting each others’ hometowns to give advice on land-use challenges.

In Boston, the fellows decided to give advice about Washington Street. The only public notice of that came a day before the team conducted a March 31 walk-through of the street, followed by interviews of some residents. On April 2, the fellows presented a preliminary report on redevelopment suggestions and strategies at City Hall.

Many locals believed that walk-through and report was the kick-off of the master plan. A BRA official is among the fellows, and other BRA officials joined in the walk-through. But, Martin said, it was totally separate and is being viewed by the BRA solely as a “bonus” to the actual process.

“Their recommendations are not part of the corridor plan,” Martin said. “They’re lending their expertise and outside perspective for future planning and future growth in a strictly advisory capacity.”

The actual corridor plan involves similar data-gathering, but will take much longer and be much more thorough.

“Master planning efforts start with a survey of existing conditions for the area being studied”—the step currently underway, Martin said. “After reporting these baseline conditions with stakeholders involved in the process, there is usually a visioning phase to solicit ideas for long-term goals from community members about how they would like to see the study area enhanced. The visioning process is then followed by development of a plan to implement the goals set by stakeholders.”

But there is no set rulebook or timeline for creating such plans. While community input will be the next step, Martin could not say when that will happen.

As for the Rose Center fellows’ report, it covered a wide variety of potential redevelopment uses and guidelines, as well as a strategy for planning them. It suggests defining the corridor with a broad perimeter and examining transit-oriented development in a bigger radius around such key spots as the Green Street and Forest Hills T Stations.

The Boston fellows are a mix of City planning and policy officials: Policy Chief Joyce Linehan; Housing Chief Sheila Dillon; BRA Senior Project Manager John Fitzgerald; and coordinator and Deputy Chief of Policy Danny Green.

The other fellows are city officials from Seattle; Omaha, Neb.; and Pittsburgh, Pa.

On the March 31 walk, they joined representatives from the BRA on walk down Washington Street from Columbus Avenue to Forest Hills Station, followed by interviews with community members and organizations at Doyle’s Café.

“It is always great to have the opportunity to hear an outside perspective, and we are grateful to the [ULI] Rose Fellowship for assembling such a great panel of experts,” Mayor Martin Walsh said, according to City spokesperson Gabrielle Farrell. “We look forward to embarking on this year-long project to plan that corridor of Washington Street.”

BRA Senior Planner Marie Mercurio said during the tour that the area under study covers 243 acres, of which 50 have been identified as “opportunity sites”—that is, currently underutilized and with potential for better usage. She pointed out large parking lots and the MBTA Arborway bus yard as some opportunity sites.

The parking lot attached to Schell’s Printing Company at 3399 Washington St. was pointed out as one such opportunity site.

Andy Schell, co-owner of that business, told the Gazette he wasn’t surprised that planners would be interested in redevelopment.

“I know there’s a lot going on,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential sites on the street. I haven’t been approached by anybody, but I know they’re looking. I know that at some point in the future that’s going to happen.”

Community members the Gazette spoke to praised the walk-through and report, though it was not clear at the time whether everyone realized it was not part of the official master plan process.

SNA co-chair Jennifer Uhrhane said the group “applauds” the current effort, saying it provides “necessary leadership and resources to develop a substantial, sustainable, forward-thinking plan for the future of Washington Street.”

ESMS Director Luis Coto said guidelines on such features as building heights would be welcome. Noting controversy over the 70-foot height of a proposed project at 3200 Washington, Coto said guidelines could prevent “a precedent from being set…[so] the neighborhood doesn’t have to fight every other proposal starting at that height.”

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