Developers withdraw McBride St. proposal from JPNC Zoning Committee

The proposal to construct a new six-unit residential building at the former James’s Gate parking lot at 14-16 McBride St. was withdrawn from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Zoning Committee review due to community and committee disapproval.

The JPNC Zoning Committee meeting on June 15 at Farnsworth House drew about 55 attendees.

James’s Gate and the parking lot across the street were purchased by developer Stephen Ballas this spring for $1.95 million. Leading up to the meeting, Ballas’s intentions were not clear about the future of James’s Gate, a local favorite Irish bar that closed last year. At the meeting, community members and members of the Zoning Committee expressed concern that since they were not sure what the future was for James’s Gate, they felt uncomfortable supporting the project proposal as it stood.

Ballas informed the community that the two properties have been split and are being managed by separate investors, one who invests in primarily residential developments, and one who is involved in mixed-use buildings.

“We are trying to enlist a competent restaurant tenant, but haven’t found someone financially suitable,” said John Moran, attorney representing the developer. He also said that their intentions are to potentially build more residential units above.

That caused concern from the members of the board and the community.

“These two properties historically have been linked,” said Dave Baron, chair of the Zoning Committee. “If you’re going to create a total of 11 units on both, this looks like you’re artificially de-linking projects to get around the [City’s affordable-housing policy].”

That policy states that developers of proposed residential developments of 10 or more units that seek zoning relief must have a minimum of 15 percent affordable-housing units. If the two property developments were submitted at the same time as the same project, the policy would be effective, whereas at only six units there are no mandatory affordable units.

The developers said that the two developments were not proposed together because of the different investors, and also because they wanted to present a tenant candidate with the proposal for James’s Gate. However, they agreed to be subject to the affordable-housing policy if the proposal is approved and they build at least five residential units across the street at the James’s Gate property.

The proposed building at 14-16 McBride St. will have six units with six parking spaces in a garage. That requires a variance because the zoning requires 1.5 spaces per unit. One unit, the ground floor, will be handicapped-accessible and will be 1,200 square feet. There will be three units on the second floor at 807, 833, and 1519 square feet, and on the third floor, two units at 1634 and 1625 square feet.

The proposal also requires a height variance, as it will be 39.4 feet tall, and the zoning maxes out at 35 feet.

Another variance required is for open space. The zoning code requires 3,250 square feet of open space for the site, and the proposed development would have 2,280 square feet. Part of the open space requirement is met through roof decks, which is allowable to count as open space for up to 25 percent of the total requirement. One Centre Street resident said, “The roof decks don’t improve the lives of the rest of us, only the residents living there.”

“The merit in this project is to meet the housing needs of middle-income people,” said Moran.

He presented several articles to the Zoning Committee in his favor, including a Wall Street Journal article that suggested that rising rents hurt the poorest residents in a city, but that middle-income residents “bear the brunt of the pain.” Moran also submitted a press release from Mayor Martin Walsh’s Office, outlining the City’s plan to double the pace of middle-income housing production to ultimately create 20,000 new units of middle-class housing.

“This [proposal] is within the purview of the mayor’s program,” Moran said.

Units would be sold at an average of $450/square feet. The smaller units would go for the high $300,000s and the bigger units would be sold at the high $600,000s.

Some residents felt that the prices were still too high.

“I remember when working people could afford Jamaica Plain,” said Richard Watson, resident at 22 McBride St. “I would love to see an affordable unit on this site. I am not opposed to new housing at all, but this building seems totally out of character for the neighborhood.”

Dean Collotta, manager at Farnsworth House, said that the concerns of the abutting Farnsworth residents were that there was no setback along the property line between Farnsworth.

Other community concerns were about density. The maximum amount of units allowed on the site without requiring a variance is three units.

After hearing the comments and concerns from the community and the presentation from the developers, Baron said that he appreciated the offer to pool two units and treat the two parcels as a common project to meet affordability requirements.

“To me, that makes a big difference and I’m glad to hear it,” Baron said. “But, it feels like it doesn’t match anything that’s going on at McBride. Maybe if this building was proposed for the James’s Gate site, I could understand that a lot more—you’re facing Centre Street, it makes sense there, we need more housing…I feel like here it’s creating something new, and that’s the whole reason we have zoning, is to not create something that looks nothing like other things around it. I also really want to see this as a common presentation with the other parcel. So, personally I can’t support it.”

Ultimately, the developers agreed to withdraw the proposal and to defer any Zoning Board of Appeals hearing until they’ve come before the JPNC Zoning Committee again with a revised plan.

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