BRA: Washington/Columbus study could lead to new zoning by summer 2016

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), which will hold another Washington Street/Columbus Avenue corridor study meeting on Sept. 30, expects the effort to lead to new zoning for that area being approved by next summer, according to BRA senior planner Marie Mercurio.

Mercurio has been a major figure behind the study.

“We’re trying to figure out a vision for the study area because obviously there has been a lot of development pressure and interest in development,” she said.

She said that projects are getting approved without any discussion from the community about what they really want to be there. Part of the aim of the study is to change that, according to Mercurio.

The study, which launched at the end of July with an open house, is expected to last around nine months in total. The first six months will be reserved for planning and to collect recommendations from the community. Mercurio said the BRA doesn’t know exactly what the final product will look like, but the final months will be spent translating the recommendations into zoning. She said the BRA hopes the zoning will be completed by spring 2016 and approved by the summer.

“We’ve found that the hard work comes in the planning,” she said. “Finding out what people really want is the hard part; translating it into zoning isn’t as hard once we know what people want.”

The method for conducting the study will include open dialogues and engaging with “as many different groups and backgrounds as possible to figure out their vision,” said Mercurio. “We’re looking into not just development, but getting around the area and preserving the special assets and features that are already there.”

The BRA has organized several workshops for the study, including several “walkshops,” which were held on Sept. 1. Mercurio said that the walkshops were successful because they were walking and biking around the neighborhoods in question, “getting on the ground, actually looking at a pedestrian crosswalk.”

The series of questions that are opened up for discussion at these workshops are designed to ask residents to reflect on what their concerns are for the area and what their vision of its potential future is, she said.

“We’re looking at uses, scale and types of buildings,” said Mercurio.

The planning process will culminate into a list from the community regarding issues about height and size of buildings, and suggested changes to the public realm so residents feel safer and more inclined to enjoy these areas.

“We’re going to be implementing this vision by translating recommendations into new zoning,” said Mercurio. “A lot of the area is zoned industrially, but do [residents] really want to keep industrial uses? Do [residents] want to keep the jobs that these industrial uses bring or do they want more people walking around and shops and retail?”

The response to these questions so far has been mixed, she said.

“While people appreciate the industrial heritage and jobs are very important, the next set of feedback says it doesn’t look nice, maybe we should but some trees in.”

If the community feedback leans towards keeping industrial use in the area, the study could consider changing the guidelines to affect the style of the buildings.

The study has received over 800 responses to those sorts of open-ended questions from workshops and a survey, which is available on BRA website. Mercurio said that the feedback tends to fall into four themes.

The top concern in feedback has been affordable housing, which falls into the Community Resiliency and Sustainability theme.          “This is about keeping people where they are,” said Mercurio.          The next theme, Mobility and Connectivity, encompasses issues of commuting, bike lanes and traffic studies. The third theme, Land Use and Development, is to open to questions about mixed-use buildings and size and dimensions of any new developments. The final theme is Public Realm and Streetscape, which covers issues of trees, streetlights, storefronts and anything else about how the public experience can be improved.

In upcoming workshops, Mercurio hopes those themes will be explored in more detail.

“This study will provide predictability for developers and residents,” said Mercurio. She added that once the zoning matches the vision of what people want, new developments could meet more of the communities needs.

The study is also in the process of creating an advisory group from prominent members of the community, according to Mercurio. The group will have no special power, just advising and “keeping [the BRA] on track,” said Mercurio.

“People are frustrated with the height of 3200 [Washington St. project], Mercurio said. “I’m well aware that there is a contingency of residents that aren’t pleased with its approval, but we want to move beyond that. Maybe if there was a vision in place before it got approved, the results might have been different.”

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