The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) met virtually via Zoom on May 26, where City Councilor Matt O’Malley gave a presentation and took questions.
O’Malley spoke about COVID-19, and focused specifically on the city’s budget process, which is currently underway.
Because budget hearings had to be held virtually,“we’ve had very well attended hearings for this process,” O’Malley said.
When “the budget was crafted, we were in a very different world than we are now,” he said. He said that because of this, the focus for the budget has now shifted more heavily to Boston Public Schools (BPS), the Boston Public Health Commission, and food access. “The budget has been scaled back and some of the resources have bee reallocated,” He said. “That will likely continue as the weeks and months go on.”
He said that the budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 is a 4.4 percent increase over FY20. “We were able to balance this budget on the back of property tax,” O’Malley said, as there is “a lot of new growth from new developments.”
O’Malley said that there have been “a lot of good investments related to the environment” recently, including investments in streetscapes, Franklin Park, Boston Common, and other green areas.
He said that there is an “opportunity to look at best practices” moving forward with environmental investments.
Other capital plans in Jamaica Plain include the $23 million investment in the Engine 42 fire station, the Curley School, Amory Street extension, redesign of Egleston Square and Centre/South, as well as the new Egleston Square Branch library project.
He called BPS “one of the most difficult things we’re dealing with right now,” with trying to get remote learning working for all BPS students.
“Not all students are logging in or getting the support they need,” O’Malley said, adding that the Council and the City are “working on this.”
Thousands of Chromebooks have been distributed to BPS students across the city since the beginning of the pandemic, and O’Malley said that Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and her team “deserve enormous credit” for distributing the laptops and getting student meal sites up and running quickly.
“We need to make sure that there are other supports at home,” O’Malley said, including addressing barriers around language access. “We want to make sure that BPS has the support they need to not only support the students in an education environment, but holistically.”
He said that there are opportunities for mentorships and partnerships with the community and BPS, and that the JPNC might be a good partner with something like coordinating homework help for BPS students.
“Boston has had a strong market even through tough economic times,” O’Malley said. “As things progress, if there is indeed a second wave or if getting to an actual vaccination takes longer than we hope, that’s going to exacerbate a tough economic climate.”
He said that it is “likely that we’re going to see some very very difficult economic times again,” but the fact that Boston maintains an AAA bond rating “allows for some leverage.”
He also said that “it’s not as though we can stop spending now and save for the future. There are some things that money has to be spent on now.”
O’Malley said that the “state legislature has not done enough to help Boston,” but he did praise Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Rep. Nika Elugardo, and Rep. Liz Malia for their work in the district.
Other topics that the Councilor touched upon included construction and public safety in the district.
He said he is “cautiously optimistic” about construction, as “it is hard to socially distance.” He did say that there are protocols in place to make it safer for people, but he said he also worries that the Inspectional Services Department “is going to be stretched way too thin to oversee it.”
O’Malley also said that he hopes expectations can be readjusted and that “projects will be done more slowly and deliberately and safely.”
School construction is also something that will have to be focused on, O’Malley said. “How do you socially distance in a school?” He said, and things like creating more space and having less students in the classroom, as well as having a sink in classrooms for students to wash their hands are all things that need to be thought about.
JPNC member Samantha Montano said that “now is the time to fund a lot of social programs,” as it is “more likely to become violent as it becomes more austere.”
O’Malley said that the Council has to “make sure we do a little more to help neighborhoods. Substance abuse is still a…factor, domestic violence rates have gone up.”
“We have to continue to deal with this crisis now, in the shorter term, and in the longer term,” O’Malley said, adding that he “recognizes that there has to be more building and a more transparent system to building.”
O’Malley said he supports a “complete rezoning of the city,” and recognizes that people say “we need more affordability but not too much new housing.” He said he is a “big proponent” of the JP/Roxbury corridor study, calling the goals of the study “aggressive.”
Zoning Committee chair David Baron talked about the proposal at 561-579 Centre St. that came before the Zoning Committee last month. The old gas station will be home to Meadowlark Butcher and Grocer, which will offer fresh groceries and food for both on and off premises consumption, as well as a package store license for beer and wine consumption off premises.
The project will “use the existing building with an addition along the line where the fence is,” Baron reported, which will “stick out like an L for a cooler of some kind.” There will be seven parking spaces.
Underneath the existing canopy, owner Max Gitlen wants to put some seasonal tables for people to eat outdoors.
Gitlen presented this proposal to the Jamaica Pond Association a few months ago, which voted not to oppose the project with several provisos. Many neighbors came to that meeting and offered their support of the project, saying they cannot wait to have something like this in the neighborhood.
Baron said that the nearby condo association had opposed the former plan to put. convenience store on the lot, but they do support this proposal with specific terms that were agreed upon, including hours of operation, when waste will be picked up, keeping meat waste in the cooler, and closing the Lakeville entrance to the lot. Gitlen will also put an enclosure around the cooler to dampen the noise.
“People seem satisfied with it,” Baron said.
“There are two curb cuts to get onto that lot,” Baron said. “He will close that one off with a planter/bollard arrangement” as well as screening and buffering elements and plantings along the fence.
Baron said that there were about 100 letters of support submitted. He said that there was a neighbor at the Zoning Committee meeting who opposed the project, citing issues with parking and traffic as well as sanitary concerns of having a butcher in the neighborhood.
The JPNC voted to approve this project with the same provisos that were outlined in the JPA letter, some of which were the same as concerns from neighbors, and this special permit would sunset with this business and this business owner, meaning if Max Gitlen stops running the shop, a new owner would have to reapply for the permit.