Residents demand affordable housing for MassDOT land

The first public meeting about the sale of seven parcels in Jamaica Plain drew strong community criticism over the state Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) proposal to auction its public land off to the highest bidder without requiring affordable housing to be built.

At the public meeting June 7 at English High School about 50 people came to ask questions and give comments about the future of the seven parcels.

The parcels were acquired by MassDOT when the land was intended to be used for an I-95 extension project highway about 45 years ago. Due to community protest, the highway was not built, and certain parcels have remained vacant to this day, still under ownership of MassDOT.

The parcels are located at 8 Oakdale St., 105-111 Call St., B108-5 which is located off Call St., 81-85 Call St., 71-77 Call St., B114-1 which is located off Spalding Street, and B101-5 which is located off Everett Street and is the largest parcel. The sizes of the parcels vary from 3,432 square feet to 22,103 square feet.

MassDOT currently is proposing to auction off each parcel individually and has a minimum bid for each parcel ranging from $66,100 to $707,000.

MassDOT’s power to sell these properties comes from a Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 6C, which authorizes and empowers the department “to acquire, lease, hold and dispose of real and personal property.” The parcels will be awarded to the highest responsible bidder, according to this law. This means that for every parcel there would be selection criteria set forth in the request for proposals, and MassDOT “shall have the right to reject any and all bids to re-advertise for bids,” according to the statute.

On the whole, residents were generally critical of the idea of selling the parcels to the highest bidder without requiring affordable housing to be built.

“This is public land, and the reason that they are owned by the state is because of a successful community effort [to block the highway],” said Laura Foner, JP resident. “The fact that they are public land means we should use every square inch for affordable housing. We have a responsibility to stop displacement in this community and maintain diversity.”

Bernard Doherty of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, an advocate for affordable housing, urged MassDOT to consider selling the parcels with a provision that affordable housing should be built, and urged others in the room to stay involved with public meetings.

“Come to the public meetings,” Doherty said. “We need people involved and asking questions. [MassDOT] isn’t selling [their] property; [they’re] selling OUR property.”

Mark Boyle, assistant general manager-real estate and asset development at MBTA and host of the public meeting, did not commit to meeting community demands to ensure affordable housing.

“We could ignore all of your comments,” Boyle said. “We had three community meetings and have made changes to be responsive, and we need cash.”

To be clear, the three community meetings he referred to were the one he was currently running, and two meetings with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council.

The changes he referred to from MassDOT’s original intentions are the decisions not to sell one parcel at 8 Oakdale St. so that it can continue to be a community garden; and to sell parcel B114-1, located off Spalding Street with the deed restriction requiring that any units built as a result of re-zoning must be affordable for residents making 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). B114-1 is currently zoned for recreational open space, whereas the others excluding the community garden are all already zoned residential.

Boyle said that MassDOT “is still listening” to the community.

Other residents expressed that they would like the land to remain empty to avoid over-density. One abutter to the Everett Street lot argued that the parcels are not “unproductive,” as they are classified by MassDOT, and said that he values the green and open space that the parcels currently provide.

“I wish we would treasure the green spaces, and not look at everything as if it’s revenue,” said another resident hoping to preserve the lots as vacant.

Boyle emphasized the need for MassDOT to balance its deficit many times, and was clear that the goal of the sale of these parcels would be to bring in as much revenue as possible.

George Lee demanded that the parcels be sold at a lower rate to developers who could create 100 percent affordable housing.

“You need to use this land for the public good. It’s not OK that you should balance your budget by this sale when it’s land that was taken from the community to begin with,” Lee said. “Public land should be maximized for affordable housing. Having an extra couple thousand dollars will not fix MassDOT’s deficit. This plan needs to change: 100 percent affordability, at real affordability, and lowering the minimum bids required.”

Leslie Bos, in charge real estate developments at nonprofit Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), said that the organization would need significantly lower land bids in order to be able to acquire the parcels and build affordable housing.

“We want you to give it to us for free so that we can build affordable housing,” Bos said bluntly. She asked rhetorically, “Where did you get this land from?”

Boyle said that the revenue would be recycled back into MassDOT, and therefore would ultimately provide a service for all residents.

“It’s not some private bank account we’re talking about. You all take public transportation, and that’s also important to the community,” Boyle said.

The parcels may be bid on by any interested developer or individual. Parcels do not need to be built upon if the owner does not choose to.

Residents can comment on the draft request for proposals (RFP) throughout July and should email Jim Kersten with their comments at [email protected]. The RFP will be issued in August, in September there will be an on-site pre-bid meeting, in late October will be the deadline for submission of proposals. At the June 7 meeting, Michael Reiskind of JPNC urged MassDOT to hold another community meeting for discussion about the usage of these parcels before the RFP is drafted. The designation of buyers for all parcels is expected to happen in late November, and by June 2018, before the end of the fiscal year, will be the deadline for conveyance of all parcels.

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