Demonstrators dominate JP/Rox planning study meeting

By Josie Grove

Special to the Gazette

Demonstrators walked into a Boston Redevelopment Authority JP/Rox planning study meeting at English High School and began clapping and chanting, “The BRA asks the wrong questions. They refuse to listen. Today, we will make them listen.”

The May 11 community workshop had been convened by the BRA to present the latest version of the JP/Rox planning and visioning process, but much of the meeting was dominated by the theme the demonstrators voiced: more affordable housing for the area.

“We are driven by people power, not profits. You already had a plan before you started,” the group, called “Keep It 100% For Egleston,” and joined by City Life/Vida Urbana and numbering close to 50, chanted.

The JP/Rox plan extends existing retail corridors along Washington Street and makes a cluster of artist studios on Washington Street just north of Forest Hills, around the Stonybrook area. Art spaces, light industry and maker spaces, and more density, will be supported, while heavy industry and warehouses will be discouraged. The BRA has said that the plan might allow for denser projects in exchange for developers building more affordable housing.

The maximum height for most areas would remain around three stories, while some more active commercial areas along the southern part of Washington Street going towards Forest Hills could build up to 6 stories. Near Jackson Square and Forest Hills, the plan would allow buildings up to 15 stories tall.

Marie Mercurio of the BRA said at the beginning of the meeting, “We are rounding out the planning phase of JP/Rox.”

As demonstrators chanted, many other neighbors engaged with the 20 BRA staffers who came to explain the current iteration of JP/Rox. About 100 people were at the meeting.

“The plan recommendations will help inform zoning in the corridor,” said Mercurio.

Inclusionary zoning and affordable housing are also a part of the plan. JP/Rox will include 500 units of public housing, and 500 units of affordable housing in private developments—1,000 total units of varying sizes, representing 30 percent of the new housing zoned in JP/Rox.

Mercurio said in an email after the meeting that “public housing” means housing through community development corporations (like the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation) and other publicly-assisted projects.

The Gazette also asked after the meeting what the total number of overall units for the plan would be considering that if 1,000 affordable units represents 30 percent, the plan would be targeting around 3350 new units for the area.

Mercurio responded, “The overall numbers that we provided are anywhere between 3,000 (May 11 workshop numbers) and 3,400 (March 5 workshop numbers) on average. I don’t know if we are comfortable calling them ‘target production numbers.’ They’re just numbers that came to us after we did our modeling and showed scenarios of what it could look like.”

Residents have raised concerns over whether the area’s current infrastructure can handle that type of population boom.

Marie Christine Blanco of City Life/Vida Urbana said at the meeting that the JP/Rox plan did not have enough affordable housing to meet the city’s needs. Paco Sanchez, a high school student who demonstrated, said “The BRA is opening up the door to gentrification.”

“Keep it 100% for Egleston” wants 50 percent of the housing to be affordable to households making less than $35,000 per year, and another 20 percent should be affordable for those making $75,000. Members of the group hope that this will maintain the neighborhood’s current demographics. They suggested public subsidies for developers and renters to the tune of $20,000 per unit. They also want the BRA to give more serious public consideration to their proposals, and are asking the BRA to postpone its vote on JP/Rox for three months to allow for more study.

Beyond the content of the plan, many demonstrators felt silenced by the BRA’s process.

“I’ve been following the BRA’s process very closely, and what I think is not happening is meetings that involve Latinos,” said Rene Bernal, one of the residents who protested.

He is concerned about the developments going up because rents in new buildings are higher. Bernal is worried that he might have to follow his sister, who left Boston for Brockton. But he has not found the BRA to be a willing audience for his concerns.

“Coming to these meetings is like being told, ‘You can listen to us, but you can’t speak.’ And if we ask a question, there isn’t an answer,” he said.

Sanchez said, “We got a lot of fuzzy answers from the BRA. Even if they haven’t come out with the official plan, we have an idea of what they want.”

“There’s a sense that it’s a fait accompli,” said the BRA’s Dana Whiteside. “And it’s not.”

Whiteside said he appreciated the passion at the meeting, and was heartened to see many young people taking an interest in their neighborhood.

“There are many forms of community expression, and this is one of them,” said Whiteside as he observed the protesters from the edge of the room. “We’ll certainly want to look at ways to engage this group around some of their very valid concerns.”

Whiteside said he was eager to connect with the organizers, and that addressing their concerns would be an important step.

“It [the JP/Rox plan] is going to be of no value if there is so much vocal opposition,” he said.

Mercurio said in an email that the BRA will hold another meeting or meetings on the study before it goes before the BRA board in July.

“We don’t know what that looks like yet,” she said. “We’re thinking to get a draft plan together then potentially take it out ‘on the road’ to different neighborhood groups—instead of one large group. We are still thinking that through.”

[Peter Shanley contributed to this article.]

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