Protesters staged a “die-in” at the last scheduled community meeting for the Plan: JP/Rox corridor study, which took place on Sept. 21 at the English High School.
Posters were placed around the room and residents filed into English High School’s cafeteria to discuss the final draft of the Plan: JP/Rox study with Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) employees. The plan is expected to go before the BPDA board Oct. 20.
Plan: JP/Rox is the long-awaited planning study for the Columbus Avenue and Washington Street corridor, from Jackson Square to Egleston Square to Forest Hills. The planning study, which was launched more than a year ago and will eventually create new zoning for the area, was originally supposed to go the BPDA board during the summer, but was pushed to the fall after activists called for a three-month delay to allow for more discussion.
The draft plan lays out an ambition proposal to have 3,500 units be built along the corridor, 30 percent of which would be affordable housing. The 30 percent target would be met through several avenues, including housing built by community development corporations and through a “density bonus.” The density bonus would allow developers to build denser buildings in exchange for having more affordable housing.
The meeting presented revisions to the final draft of the plan based on three months of community feedback since the July 15 draft. The key revisions regard housing, urban design, and transportation.
To say activists and residents were not happy with the new plan’s affordability policy is an understatement. Activists from “Keep Egleston 100% Affordable” group were the only people to directly address the attendees with a microphone, occasionally bringing other speakers to attention. A dramatic display of “death” of various community values was enacted by the activists, with different people holding different signs reading messages like “death by government planned systematic classism” and “in memory of cultural expression.”
One of Plan: JP/Rox’s “core values” is called “Development without Displacement.” A handout from the BPDA about this topic reads that “it is abundantly clear that a responsive development plan for JP/ROX must aggressively and proactively pursue housing affordability, social justice, and racial equity.” The plan currently envisions creating 593 new income-restricted units for low-income households, but has not changed since the last draft about the 30 percent affordability in the study area.
Community members in the past have asked for lower density, which was adjusted in the updated plan regarding maximum heights on Washington Street. Lower density was a priority for many community members over the Plan: JP/ROX planning process, but it also means fewer affordable housing units result from private development, according to the current plan.
Eric Herot, a JP resident, shares what he considers an “unpopular opinion” at the event.
“The residents have created this [affordability] problem with their demands for shorter buildings and lower density,” Herot said.
Many other voices at the expo could be heard criticizing the affordability aspect. The activists, after various whole-hearted chants of “you started at 30, you’re still at 30, that’s not progress,” invited any resident to the microphone to share their stories of gentrification, and many residents did.
Residents at the expo also had a chance to mingle and discuss the future of their neighborhoods.
Sarah Holley representing Bikes not Bombs engaged in passionate discussions with various community members throughout the evening.
“I was speaking to a person who grew up in Egleston, and we have different views about [the plan],” Holley tells the Gazette. “He thinks the City’s plans are acceptable, and I think the affordability needs to be higher. We did agree that displacement needs to stop.”
Holley spoke to the crowd, saying that the plan “hurts our neighborhood, it hurts people of color, and it hurts diversity.”
There were also criticisms raised that Mayor Martin Walsh was not in attendance at the meeting, or at other workshops in the past. A chant broke out of “Who do we want? Mayor Walsh. When do we want him? Now.”
Sheila Dillon, the City’s chief of housing, was in attendance and responded publicly to the demand of whether or not the City would sit down with residents who are advocating for higher affordability.
“There has been great dialogue this past year, and we’ve really listened,” Dillon said. “I’m willing to meet, but I don’t want to give the impression that the plan will change.”
City Councilor Tito Jackson was also in attendance, and spoke in support of the activists. He began by starting yet another chant in the crowd of “the people, united, will never be defeated.”
Jackson spoke about inequality in Boston, and called for a more comprehensive planning of Roxbury as a whole, not just the area covered by Plan: JP/Rox.
“We are not only talking about housing, we’re talking about life and death,” Jackson said. He cited that the life expectancy in Roxbury is the same as in Gambia and Iraq.
“This plan needs to be right for our city. We have to get together to ensure that the people’s voices are heard,” Jackson said.
At the end of it all, the Gazette asked Marie Mercurio, senior planner at the BPDA, how she felt the meeting had turned out.
“It went well,” Mercurio said. “Great conversations.”