Mixed-use plan gets mostly good reviews

David Taber

Image Courtesy Urban Edge/PCA Architecture A rendering of the proposed Jackson Commons building at 1542 Columbus Ave.

JACKSON SQ.—Around 20 people who turned out Feb. 25 for a public review of non-profit developer Urban Edge’s planned development of a mixed-use residential building with ground-floor community and commercial space largely supported the project.

Urban Edge is proposing to construct a large addition to its Webb building at 1542 Columbus Ave., converting it into a mixed-use building with commercial and community space on the ground-floor, and 38 mixed-income rental units on three upper floors.

Urban Edge currently occupies the third floor of the Webb building, and it proposes to move its offices to the first floor. That floor will also house a large storefront multi-purpose classroom, and another large storefront space for lease that could potentially be subdivided into as many as three spaces.

The first floor will also house a computer lab, space for a food pantry and a community room for use by building residents. Urban Edge staffer Katie Provencher told the audience that residents of Academy Homes I, another Urban Edge-owned housing development adjacent to the proposed development on Columbus, plan to move a food pantry they are currently running at Academy Homes into the new space.

The four-story addition will be built alongside the three-story Webb Building on the north side of the building—closer to downtown Boston. The addition will be L-shaped, with its shorter section creating new storefront space along Columbus Avenue and its longer section hooking back on the North side of the Columbus Avenue parcel.

The rear of the building will feature 7,000 square feet of open space.

The upper stories of the three-story Webb Building and four-story addition will be devoted to 38 units of mixed-income housing. Urban Edge proposes to build eight units for “extremely low-income households,” earning less than 30 percent of Greater Boston’s area median income (AMI); 21 units for households earning up to 60 percent of AMI; and eight units for households earning up to 110 percent of AMI.

According to figures from the Boston redevelopment Authority web site, 60 percent AMI was $37,900 for an individual and $48,700 for a family of three 2009. While the AMI is used for determining eligibility for many affordable housing developments, it includes many suburban communities “where income levels are higher than that of Boston,” Hacobian said in an email.

The developer proposes to build nine one-bedroom, 25 two-bedroom, and four three-bedroom units.

Maslan said focusing mostly on two-bedroom units was in part a response to Urban Edge’s own housing wait-list, and in part reflects a push to not build large-family units in “elevator buildings.”

Only one meeting attendee, Rodney Singleton, chair of the Jackson Square Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC)—a community group that provides regular input on proposed development projects in Jackson Square for the BRA— voiced serious concerns about the project.

He said he thought that the project would not do enough to spur economic development in the area and that he was disappointed about the proportion of housing that is deed-restricted as affordable.

Both the Jackson Commons project and a much larger mixed-use development by for-profit developer Mitchell Properties on the opposite side of Columbus next to the Jackson Square T Station are part of a large, multi-developer Jackson Square redevelopment effort. Construction is scheduled to begin on 225 Centre St. this year.

That project will have 103 units of rental housing—10 for very-low income house holds, 25 for households earning 60 percent AMI, and 68 market-rate units. It will also have over 16,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.

Other projects, including more housing by non-profit developer the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and by Urban Edge, are also planned for the future.

But Singleton said he sees an imbalance in the immediate plans. “You have retail on one side [of Columbus Avenue] and [affordable] housing on the other…You are running a railroad track between the two, essentially,” he said.

“It won’t be a railroad track. It will be a beautiful planted median,” said Urban Edge staffer Noah Maslan.

That was a reference to a massive public infrastructure improvement project the group of developers—known as Jackson Square Partners—plan to begin this spring.

Improving community connections was a key goal in developing the infrastructure plans, which aim to improve pedestrian access around the square with new sidewalks and crosswalks and other amenities, said Bart Mitchell of Mitchell properties.

Urban Edge CEO Chrystal Kornegay also noted that non-profits the developer expects to host in its new storefront space are part of an industry that employs many local community members. “We are creating 30 new jobs,” she said.

Speaking to the Gazette in a phone conversation after the meeting, Hacobian told the Gazette Urban Edge would be open to retail businesses moving into the new spaces it hopes to build. But reality is that retail operators will be more interested in the spaces Mitchell is building near the T station, he said.

Hacobian said it is more likely that retailers will be interested in the Roxbury side of the street after there is more active use there, potentially including a community recreation facility Urban Edge hopes to build there in the future. [See related article.]

At the meeting, Hacobian noted that Mitchell’s and Urban Edge’s projects together would create 71 units of affordable housing and 70 units of market rate housing.

Others in the audience spoke in favor of the project and of affordable housing.

New Academy Estates resident and CAC member Dorothy Haskins said she particularly supports the housing for very-low income households, which, she said could provide homes for people who might otherwise end up homeless. “They deserve to live in dignity, too,” she said.

Another New Academy resident, Annie Russell, said she appreciates the developers striving to provide an affordability mix that reflects the diversity of income levels in the Jackson Square area.

The developers, who are hoping to receive state funding for the rehabilitation of the existing Webb Building because of its historic significance, had some insight to offer into its history.

It has been used as a private storage facility and as a stable for horses that drew trolley cars, Maslan said, and it got its name from the F.W. Webb Plumbing Supply Co., which moved in around 1860. The same company still exists as the F.W. Webb Company, according to its web site, with current headquarters in Bedford.

BRA project manager John Fitzgerald said the public comment period for Urban Edge’s project will run through March 10. Comments should be submitted by e-mail to [email protected], by fax to 248-1937 or by post to John Fitzgerald, Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1 City Hall Plaza, Boston, MA 02201.

Copies of the plan are available on Urban Edge’s web site www.urbanedge.org, or at the BRA’s City Hall office.

The developers said they hope to begin construction in 2011 if they win approval for the project and can secure financing.

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