Although the audience was a bit thinner than at the previous meetings, the energy, enthusiasm and optimism was unmistakable at the third entry in a series of workshops examining the JP/Rox Plan Washington Street corridor.
“We want you to look at areas that are changing and are likely to change,” said Marie Mercurio, a senior planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “We want to understand those areas ripe for change. We will take those ideas back to the office and model out those areas to create an implementation strategy for zoning recommendations.”
An interagency team has been advising the JP/Rox planning process since July, and “there is an emerging vision,” Mercurio said. The Dec. 10 meeting, held in the cafeteria at English High School, turned attention to land-use planning, and was guided by Mercurio and her colleagues Lara Merida, deputy director of community planning, John Dalzell, a senior architect, and other BRA staff.
Zoning is a chief BRA function, and Mercurio said current zoning does not match current uses in the planning area.
For example, current zoning code authorizes 45 percent of the land within the study area to be used for residential use, but actual land use is about 38 percent. Industrial land use is presently at 18 percent, but the zoning code states that 38 percent can be use for industrial purposes.
“How can we match your visions with the zoning code?” Mercurio said. “We need to talk about how zoning can make industrial and residential land uses compatible.”
Dalzell asked attendees to consider the following questions:
1. “What is there that is planned? What can we reasonably expect to happen?”
2. “The historic land use trend in Jamaica Plain has been a lot more density and variety of uses built around transit lines: heavy rail, street railway and elevated transit. Do we want to keep that growth pattern?”
3. “The neighborhood is a composite. One-story car repair and service buildings — are they still important? Can one-story use still fit in with the needs of today?”
Dalzell also urged attendees to consider how to hold onto the character of the neighborhood.
“The greatest challenge, to us, is the spaces in between,” Dalzell said, pointing to apartments blocks and three-story walk-ups tucked between garages and light manufacturing buildings, such as at Dimock-Bragdon and Columbus Avenue. “Do we want that use to remain varied?” he asked.
Pam McKinney, a real estate consultant, delivered a blunt, “Eat your broccoli or no dessert”-style talk.
“Community benefits come with a cost,” McKinney said. Pointing to the visions expressed over the past three months for affordable housing, growth that strengthens community, arts, cultural and civic assets, vibrant streets and sidewalks, she asked, “Who shoulders the costs of those values, those benefits? The most powerful tool we have is the zoning code. It can help to define those benefits. We need to match values with costs. We have to look at tradeoffs, accepting more height and more density in order to achieve the values we want.”
McKinney advised the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development on the new Inclusionary Development Policy signed by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh Dec 9. This policy would charge developers higher fees for building luxury housing in certain Boston neighborhoods, and could dramatically change the way private developers provide housing for low- and moderate-income families across the city, as well as redefine the emerging housing strategy of the JP/Rox Plan.
McKinney said she does worry about development pressures in Jamaica Plain. “If the prices for land and construction keep rising, there is less money for community benefits,” she said. “Speed is imperative here. Land prices are rising now. The more you can write in the zoning code now, the more you can establish your values now.”
Dalzell agreed. “Speed is important,” he said. Developers are likely to want to concentrate development along transit lines. The challenge, he said, is determining “how to steer and shape this along the corridor. We want an affordable, 21st century strategy. We need to build community character with new uses.”
Jamaica Plain resident Laura Foner urged the planners to be cautious amidst this atmosphere of change. “Don’t permit properties to be built until this process is done,” she said. “Nothing [should] be approved until there is an enforceable community vision.”
Dalzell replied that moratoriums on development would take away an owner’s land-use rights, and are thus difficult to legally enforce.
During breakout groups, Jamaica Plain News joined table 10, guided by BRA senior planner Laura Shurtleff and Anne Barrett, a member of the JP/Rox advisory group. Tables had ample time to discuss their concerns and ideas, perhaps in response to attendees’ requests from previous workshops for more time.
Edith Murnane of Brookside Avenue Extension wasted no time in stating that she wants to maintain industrial uses in the planning area. “We’re always going to need plumbers and pipefitters. These are good-paying jobs,” she said.
Table members largely agreed that most housing in the Washington Street corridor is three to four stories tall, that there is a lot of pressure to build taller and bigger, and that nothing taller than four stories should be allowed from Williams Street to Montebello Road.
Alan Treslow suggested that higher density be allowed around Green Street, one block in from Washington Street, where five- to six-story buildings would be acceptable — with a caveat. “If you go up to five to six stories you are required to have 25 percent affordable units,” he suggested. Taller buildings could be zoned between Montebello Road and Boylston Street, others added, and maximum affordability should be restricted around the Forest Hills and Jackson Square T stations.
The table wanted to maintain mixed-use residential/commercial uses at Egleston Square and School Street. Dalzell, who cruised the cafeteria offering advice and insights at each table, stopped over to suggest that “one idea for mixed use is housing over light industrial.” One strategy discussed was to concentrate commercial uses at Forest Hills and Egleston Square.
The table turned its attention to the Columbus Avenue aleg of the study area. “This is a wall between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury,” said Michael Reiskind, who sits on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee. “There are gang fights between [residents at] Bromley [Heath] in JP and Academy Homes in Roxbury. This is a barrier. How can we tear down this wall?”
Several tables briefed the audience of their conclusions at the end of the solid hour of discussions. One group member urged that affordable housing be targeted to those earning $26,000 a year. “Right now, “affordable” means I have to earn $23 an hour. I can’t afford to live in Jamaica Plain anymore.”
Another table suggested adding more, larger buildings around Jackson Square: “Jackson Square housing should be 10 to 12 stories along Columbus Avenue and Amory Street. We need to add more street-level activity along Amory street.”
Luis Cotto, executive director of Egleston Square Main Streets, speaking for his table, said that there should be “small-rise buildings of two to six stories to preserve the character of the district, [as well as] strict affordability to preserve the character of Egleston Square.” He also advocated for the passage of just-law eviction legislation.
Another table posited that the Green Street area should be branded as the “Green Wellness neighborhood,” with environmentally efficient, “green” residential home design and construction of what they defined as “moderate-scale four- to six-story story buildings.”
The topic of the next JP/RoxPlan workshop in January 2016 will be “Mobility and Connectivity.”