CAC to vote on homeless housing, ice rink

David Taber

JACKSON SQ.—The Jackson Square Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) hurriedly decided at its September meeting at New Academy Estates on Washington Street to schedule an October vote on proposed changes to Urban Edge’s development plans for its Columbus Avenue parcel.

The move came after Urban Edge President Mossik Hacobian announced toward the end of the Sept. 10 meeting that the non-profit community development corporation (CDC) had only until early November to apply to the city for rental subsidies for 30 units of housing for the formerly homeless it is considering building.

“Once you put in your application for financing, the horse has already left the barn,” CAC member Dan Cruz said in the meeting.

Urban Edge’s new proposal also calls for an ice skating rink, originally proposed for the rear of the site, to be moved to the corner of Columbus Avenue and Ritchie Street at the front of the lot.

Hacobian later told the Gazette that he learned after the meeting that Urban Edge might be able to take advantage of another application round for the funding with a May due date.

As of Tuesday, CAC chair Rodney Singleton told the Gazette he had not heard about the second funding round and that the CAC still plans to vote on Urban Edge’s plan on Oct. 6.

The CAC—a group convened by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and formally appointed by the mayor to provide community input regarding a large-scale multi-developer Jackson Square redevelopment project in the neighborhood—is scheduled to meet only once a month.

The October vote may face a technical hurdle. CAC rules established by the group when it was convened call for a quorum of 11 members; that is, at least 11 members must be present when official decisions are made. According to a list provided last spring by BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker, the Jackson Square CAC has 21 members, but it has been rare for 11 of them to show up to meetings. Some have not attended for quite a while.

John Fitzgerald—son of former State Rep. Kevin Fitzgerald—took over for Rodney Sinclair as the BRA project manager for Jackson Square just before the September CAC meeting. He told the Gazette after the meeting that Sinclair had been in the process of trying to update CAC membership before he left, but the CAC is still officially composed of those people.

Changes in plans

In addition to Urban Edge plans, the redevelopment project includes plans by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), another CDC; the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF), a community organization; and for-profit developer Mitchell Properties. The group, known as Jackson Square Partners (JSP), has spent a good part of 2009 reorganizing the project.

Eventually, the project calls for over 9 acres of land in the square to be redeveloped into housing, retail, community and recreational space and parkland. The recent economic downturn and other snags have slowed the project down considerably. Most recently, plans by HSTF and the JPNDC to build an over 30,000-square-foot Youth and Family Center on the JP side of Columbus Avenue north of Centre Street have been postponed because of fund-raising difficulties.

The downturn has also led JSP to prioritize public infrastucture work—a part of the project it has received state and federal money to do.

Urban Edge’s original plans have been on the rocks since January when the Department of Youth Services, a former tenant at the site, pulled out of a plan to build a new state facility there.

Other pieces of the original proposal—included building affordable rental and affordable and market-rate homeownership housing on the site, as well as building a permanent home for JP’s Kelly ice skating rink to the rear of the site—have also hit snags.

Problems convincing the city to undertake a close to $15 million effort to reconfigure a Department of Public Works (DPW) salt shed abutting the property to the rear—making room for the skating rink—frustrated that plan.

Additionally, the housing market slump has made finding funds for the housing ownership component difficult. The CAC and the City previously opposed putting any housing near an the-reconfigured salt shed, a major component of Urban Edge’s short-lived second plan.

New plans

So, now on its third plan for the site, Urban Edge is proposing to construct 30 rental units of housing for formerly homeless families on an expanded second floor of the Webb Building—a two-story building on the site at 1542 Columbus Ave. where its offices are currently located. Urban Edge plans to use the expanded first floor as community space and office space for non-profits.

The proposal for rental housing for the formerly homeless has raised questions among some CAC members. Many say they would like to see mixed-income rental and home-ownership housing on both sides of Columbus—a roadway that is commonly considered to be the border between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.

Some CAC members expressed particular frustration because the one proposed phase one project that is moving forward as planned is on the JP side and is mostly market-rate units. Mitchell Properties’ mixed-use rental development with ground-floor retail on the corner of Centre Street and Columbus Avenue next to the Jackson Square T Station will have 103 units, including 35 affordable units.

“I see that this is skewed in phase one, and that, quite honestly, bothers me a lot,” CAC member Jen Spencer said at the meeting.

Skating rink

The inclusion of the rink in Urban Edge’s redevelopment plans has long been controversial, and the new plan, to move it from the rear of the parcel to the front corner of Columbus Avenue and Ritchie Street. has raised some eyebrows at recent meetings.

Urban Edge’s plan is for the rink to be a new home for the Kelly Rink. That JP ice rink originally stood on the Jamaicaway, but was torn down and in 1999 replaced with a temporary outdoor rink on Marbury Terrace meant to last five years. [See related article.]

Roxbury has its own run-down skating rink—the Melnea Cass Rink—less than a mile from the site, and Roxbury residents have long questioned the advisability of building a new rink so close, instead of rehabbing the Melnea Cass.

Shortly before she was defeated in the Democratic primary last fall, then state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson attempted to negotiate a truce in the rink feud. She secured two appropriations in an environmental bond bill, one for $5.69 million for the construction of the new Kelly Rink and one for $4.4 million to reconfigure the Cass into a multi-purpose recreation center.

Bond bills are only authorizations to issue bonds to fund projects. The ultimate decision to actually issue the bonds rests with Gov. Deval Patrick. At the CAC meeting, Hacobian admitted that it is far from a sure thing that bonds will be issued for either of the projects. But, he said, one of the reasons Urban Edge is eager to move forward with the rink is because there is a prospect for funding it.

If the bond authorization is acted on, “It’s not just the $5.69 million, but bringing to the table something from the public sector,” to entice private funders, he said.

Concerns at the meeting mostly centered on the location and size of the rink. Singleton said he would have liked to see more detailed renderings of the new rink. “Elevations would have helped because I am thinking [the rink] does not fit,” he said.

Programming issues

Concerns were also raised that the rink may be moving forward when, at least for many members of the CAC, the Youth and Family Center is seen as a higher priority.

JSP plans to expand both adult and youth programming space at other locations in the area while it waits for economic conditions to change. That includes utilizing space in Urban Edge-owned buildings on Columbus and a plan to renovate the Cheverus Building, a former school where the HSTF runs youth programs in Hyde Square.

But at the August CAC meeting, as well as the most recent one, CAC members pointed out that the Youth and Family Center was intended to be situated between JP and Roxbury and serve as common ground between the two neighborhoods.

There was some debate about how relevant the location of the center is. “Kids from the community go to the Hyde Square Task Force every day. It’s not like it used to be,” said CAC member Dorothy Haskins of New Academy Estates, a housing development on the Roxbury side of Egleston Square.

But Cruz said his teenage daughters are still very conscious of what neighborhood they are in. He also said he was disappointed that financial constraints are having such an impact on what the developers are proposing to move forward with.

“If things start to deviate from highest and best use, it starts to feel a little prickly. Right now it is going from highest and best use to, ‘Where is there money?’” he said.

Speaking from the audience, Steve Glickel of Friends of Kelly Rink said he thinks the new rink is an important part of the overall development.

“The Youth and Family Center’s struggles are not a reason not to move forward with the rink,” he said. “There were supposed to be three [community facilities], the Cass, the Youth and Family Center and the Kelly.”

Glickel said he is concerned that if the Kelly does not move forward, “We are left with no facilities.”

In response to questions from the CAC, Hacobian said it is impossible to redirect the potential funding from the bond authorization to the Youth and Family Center.

Hacobian said that Urban Edge still plans to advocate for the reconfiguration of the salt shed, and that if that happens, and the market improves, Urban Edge would revisit a part of its original proposal: developing home-ownership units on Ritchie Street.

Industrial use

CAC member Celia Grant suggested that, rather than housing, a light industrial-use development should be created.

CAC member Miriam Ortiz suggested something like what she called, a “light industrial project par exellence,” the retail/office/light industrial program the JPNDC has developed at the Brewery Complex on Amory Street.

Those uses would offer something Grant said she felt the development is missing: job opportunities. “If you can’t build housing, maybe people can work there,” she said.

In a Gazette interview, Hacobian rejected that idea. “The Brewery Complex took 20 years, and it was on a piece of property [JPNDC] bought for a very low price,” he said. “I am not sure a comparable proposal in Jackson Square would make sense right now…I don’t see any possible funding source.”

He also noted that light industrial uses were not part of the community vision developed for the area in the 1990s, or part of the BRA’s request for proposals (RFP) when it initially sought developers for the public land in the area.

The community process developed a document called “Putting the Pieces Together,” he said, and that document was included as an amendment to the RFP put out by the BRA.

“Hypothetically,” he said, “light industrial might have been an interesting question, but it is not what the RFP requested and it is not what would have been responsive.”

“We believe [the current proposal] meets a variety of objectives for the overall project,” which included recreational facilities, community space and housing for a variety of income levels, Hacobian told the Gazette.

Getting approval

The changes to the Urban Edge plans would eventually have to be included in a “notification of project change” filed with the BRA. Because the CAC is convened by the BRA and charged with advising the BRA, there was some conversation at the meeting about whether the CAC should wait until the notification is submitted before offering an opinion on the changes.

But BRA approval will only come after detailed architectural and financing plans for the new proposal have been hashed out, Hacobian and BRA project manager John Fitzgerald said.

CAC members said they felt that was too far along in the process for their opinion to have serious weight.

The CAC briefly considered trying to host a community meeting in late September or early October to gather broader input before it voted on the new proposal, but concluded that there was not enough time.

After the meeting, CAC member Spencer told the Gazette community members are strongly encouraged to attend the Oct. 6 CAC meeting. The location for that meeting has not yet been announced, but will be posted at when it is available.

CAC members

Members of the CAC and their identifications, according to the BRA list, are, in this order: Edward Bernard (Highland Park PRC), Bruce Bickerstaff (Roxbury), Red Burrows (Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council), Celia Grant (Roxbury), David Worrell (Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation), Caprice Taylor-Mendez (City Life), Bob Pulster (Jamaica Plain), Abass Dieng (Academy Homes), Fernando Mercedes (Hyde Square Business Association), Barbara Couzens (Dimock Community Health Center), Clara Garcia (Jamaica Plain), Rafael Benzan (Hyde/Jackson Main Streets), Debbie Lubarr (Roxbury), Robert Terrell (Roxbury Neighborhood Council), Rodney Singleton (Roxbury), Ron Hafer (Jamaica Plain), Jennifer Spencer (Jamaica Plain), Dan Cruz (Roxbury), Dorothy Haskins (Roxbury) and Damaris Pimentel (Hyde/Jackson Main Streets). Alternate: Carlos Schillaci (Hyde/Jackson Main Streets).