Forest Hills land use guidelines scaled back


BRA questions level of community opposition

FOREST HILLS—You cannot please all the people all the time.

After nine community meetings since November, 2006 to hash out a plan for the eventual redevelopment of six parcels around Forest Hills station, Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Senior Architect John Dalzell told the Gazette he is resigned to that fact.

“This has been a process about what is ok with the community, but we have to accept that not everyone is going to be happy,” Dalzell, who has been leading the process known as the Forest Hills Improvement Initiative (FHII), said.

At the Aug. 13 FHII community meeting the BRA presented redevelopment guidelines that scaled-back the density of proposed development a little. It was an effort to respond to concerns expressed at a meeting in June.

But it was not good enough for some local residents.

“You guys did a tremendous job, a fantastic, tremendous job,” said local resident Natasha Khanduker, referring to the BRA’s efforts. But, she said, she would have been happier if redevelopment had never been considered in the first place.

“Where is the forum for those of us who are…opposed to this?…There are many of us who want none of this,” she said.

“You are heard here. This is your forum,” Dalzell responded.

While Khanduker and others voiced concerns at the August meeting, expressions of opposition to the guidelines were more muted than at a contentious June meeting.

The goal of the FHII has been to develop community guidelines for six parcels around Forest Hills station. The process was initiated in 2006 when the MBTA announced plans to sell three parcels it owns south of the station. The process was later expanded to include three other parcels, including the MBTA commuter parking lot, which were not scheduled for redevelopment. Then, in November, 2007, in response to community concerns about balanced development—particularly about building enough retail space to serve the area—the MBTA agreed to lease the commuter lot for development at the same time that it sells the other three lots.

There are no immediate plans to develop the other two parcels— the MBTA-owned Arborway bus yard and the privately owned Fitzgerald parking lot.

The guidelines being developed in the FHII process will help the MBTA in determining what type of development would be appropriate for the site and what the developed sites will be worth.

The MBTA wanted to put the parcels on the market last spring. More recently, a June 26 meeting was intended to afford the community a last review of the guidelines.

Well over 100 community residents—many of them new o the process— attended that meeting and expressed concerns about the guidelines.

The BRA was apparently prepared for controversy—the June meeting was opened with a promise by BRA Director John Palmeri that there would be additional meetings.

In response to the concerns expressed in June, the BRA brought back a new set of changes to the August meeting. Going into the June meeting, the guidelines called for 400 residential units on the properties the MBTA plans to put on the market.

That included mixed-use development with ground floor retail and about 200 residential units at the commuter parking lot site, known as Parcel S. The MBTA agreed to include it along with the other sites it is selling in response to residents’ concerns that it is key location for core commercial development, especially as the area is subjected to a significant population increase.

But, while the MBTA is willing to lease it to developers for a nominal price of about $40,000 a year, the transit authority still needs to maintain 240 commuter parking spaces on the lot. Five- or six-story structures on the site would be necessary to justify the expense of maintaining those spaces, the BRA has maintained.

At the June meeting, many opposed a structure of that height.

At the August meeting, the BRA presented two new options for Parcel S. One would reduce the number of residential units from 200 to 170. That option would still require six stories.

Another option would eliminate the housing component altogether. It would see 163,000 square feet of office space or other commercial uses over ground-floor retail. That plan would see a six-story building next to the station and a four-story structure next to Ukraine Way.

If that plan were realized, Dalzell told the Gazette, the construction would be “a little blockier” than residential buildings, and it would require more parking. But it would “really only be three-and-a-half stories, because the top level would be a parking level.”

A financial fesability study the BRA presented suggested that it would only be worthwhile to build that much commercial space for a large institutional tenant because of the neighborhood’s remote location.

Parcel S plans also include a plaza or “village center.”

On Parcel U, south of Ukraine Way on Hyde Park Avenue, the BRA suggested that a five-story mixed-use building on the corner of Ukraine and Hyde Park be reduced to four stories. It also suggested that a large residential building along Hyde Park be redesigned as three- and four-story wood framed multi-family houses, in a style similar to the houses on the other side of the street.

It recommended that the guidelines call for 120 units of housing on that site instead of 150. That would make room for close to one parking space per unit on the site.

Small changes were also recommended for the significantly smaller sites—Parcels V and W—flanking Washington Street south of Ukraine Way.

On the small Parcel V lot, on the station side of the street, a recommendation for six to eight units of housing was reduced to just six.

It was also suggested that the developer could be required to turn open space slated for Parcels V and W left over to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) for use as parks.

At previous meetings, community members had expressed enthusiasm for extending the Southwest Corridor bike path south through the station and through open space that would be left on Parcel V, enabling bicyclists to bypass often congested roadways around the station.

In addition to concerns about the height and density of proposed development, community members have expressed concerns about the potential impact of increased traffic in the neighborhood that new development would bring. The FHII process also includes community guidelines for traffic and public infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood. Dalzell previously told the Gazette that most of those changes will happen in conjunction with the development projects as they move forward.

At the August meeting, Boston Transportation Department (BTD) Deputy Commissioner James Gillooly said that efforts to relieve congestion on those roadways are continuing .

BTD is still working on signal coordination in the area, and has expanded its efforts, he said. In addition to coordinating signals around the station, it is working to coordinate traffic signals along three corridors that feed into Forest Hills: Hyde Park Avenue from Hyde Park; Washington Street from Beech Street in Roslindale; and, on the other side of the station, Washington Street from Dudley Square.

“Not only will we improve trip time at Forest Hills, but we will improve it to and fro,” Gilooly said.

Affordable housing has also been a sticking point throughout the process, with some calling for 50 percent of new housing to be made affordable and some calling for a more modest affordability component.

Not surprisingly, the financial feasibility study presented by the BRA found that 50 percent affordability would require significant subsidies.

Community concerns about all of these issues were significantly more muted in August than they had been at the June meeting.

Bernie Doherty, chair of the Asticou-Martinwood Neighborhood Association, said that, despite a small turnout from residents opposed to the plan, a great deal of opposition still exists.

He said he personally opposes development on Parcel V, wants to see development on the other parcels scaled back even more and wants development on Parcel S to be tabled for the time being.

“Put the others in first and see how they impact the neighborhood, then think about Parcel S,” he said.

Others have other views, he said, including that no development should happen at all. Turnout by those with serious concerns was lackluster at the meeting, he said, because they feel defeated.

“What has happened here is people have sat back and said, ‘What can I do to fight City Hall?’” Doherty said.

In June, Mayor Thomas Menino told the Gazette he supported continuing the process through the summer. “The process is not yet complete…The plans must be in keeping with what the community wants,” he said.

Doherty told the Gazette that he would work to make sure the next FHII meeting, scheduled for September, would see a community outpouring similar to the June meeting.

“The next meeting will be much bigger,” he said.

Dalzell said he thinks a lot of the opposition at the June meeting was generated by a flyer—distributed by a group calling itself Friends Of Forest Hills—falsely claiming that a 10-story building was being planned for Parcel S.

“I don’t think they are there,” he said of the large number of opponents Doherty claimed. “They certainly weren’t there at the [August] meeting.”

Dalzell said he thinks that many who expressed concerns at the June meeting left with a better understanding of the process.

“Bernie talks about a lot of people that are very, very opposed. There are some people who want no change but most people want Forest Hills to be a better place,” he said.

Some who have been involved in the close to two-year long process from the beginning, said they had feared after the June meeting that there efforts would come to naught in the face opposition from new participants.

“I have been working on this for two years, I don’t want to go back to square one,” Forest Hills resident and Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council Member Pam Bender said. “I agree every voice needs to be heard, but I do not want to start over again.”

Dalzell said the September meeting will likely be the last. “I don’t think anyone would say more meetings would get us further along,” he said.

While the FHII process is drawing to a close, it will likely be at least three years before development begins at Forest Hills, Dalzell said at the August meeting. Development on each parcel will be preceded by independent community review processes and the work on different parcels will be done in phases, he said.

See Also: BRA Forest Hills Improvement Initiative web site

From the Gazette: Forest Hills Process Does Not End, July 11, 2008

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