First Look: Proposals Emerge From Giant ‘Plan JP/Rox’ Effort

The Anna Mae Cole Hall at Bromley Heath was packed on March 5 for the 5th workshop of the JP.Rox Plan

Richard Heath

The Anna Mae Cole Hall at Bromley Heath was packed on March 5 for the 5th workshop of the JP/Rox Plan

The once-in-a-generation planning effort that goes by the name “Plan JP/Rox” has started to produce specifics about what our neighborhood will look like.

“We’ve listened to you. Now it’s time to respond to you with your ideas wrapped up into planning policies,” announced senior BRA architect John Dalzell at a packed Saturday morning workshop,  the fifth in a series which began in September 2015 to plan the future of the Washington Street corridor from Forest Hills to Jackson Square.

Because there’s so much information to digest, we’ve broken down this report into several posts. You can read about overarching concerns here in this story. For deeper dives into what’s proposed for particular neighborhoods, please see the following stories:

“Now we’ve come up for the first time with some development strategies,” Dalzell went on. “Change is what brought us here. People in Egleston Square and Stonybrook neighborhoods asked us to come up with guidelines in areas we are likely to see change.”

Workshop Five, unlike the other four, was not about wishes and hopes marked up on large newsprint sheets stuck on a wall but, in the words of Devin Quirk, chief of operations at the Department of Neighborhood Development, about the reality of “who will be able to live here tomorrow.”

It was not about keeping Jamaica Plain weird but keeping Jamaica Plain home for all income levels.

Workshop Five was also a collaboration between the Boston Redevelopment Authority – the city’s planning agency – and its housing agency – DND.  The plans put forth Saturday were the first step towards addressing the acute needs of housing for low and moderate income families.

“We are,” said Quirk, “so concerned about displacement and the impact of affordability in our neighborhoods. We want to protect against displacement and gentrification. We have come up with some policy tools to assist low- and moderate-income housing.”

“We’ve set up an office of housing stability which should be up and running in the spring.”

“Other tools,” said Quirk, “are updating the inclusionary development policy and to extend that policy to all developments and not those seeking zoning variances.”

The new IDP will be included in the zoning code for the first time since the development policy was first written in 2000.

“Another tool is publicly owned land. We can have a different set of requirements  for that.”

“We’re looking at the ability of the city to acquire market rate housing and by various formulas like tax credits turn them into deed-restricted housing. Another way is we have committed $7 million to assist [Community Development Corporations] to acquire deed-restricted housing.”

The focus for Quirk and the mayor is rental housing. Quirk outlined the housing picture in the JP/Rox planning area. There are:

  • 2,579 housing units
  • 1,813 are rental
  • 30 percent are deed-restricted rental housing (748 units).
  • 70 percent (1,269 units) are market rate with families earning less than $50,000 a year.
  • “The households who are most at risk,” Quirk said, “are those living in market-rate housing.”

He said those living in the 1,269 market rate units in the study area make “vastly below $50,000 a year. There are 521 households who are most at risk of losing their homes” if there is a rent increase.

“These are the households we are most concerned about.”

“Our commitment,” emphasized Quirk, “is the continued commitment to build affordable units. Our goal is 2,000 new units of which 30 percent or 600 will be deed-restricted affordable units at 50 percent area median income.” [ That area extends from Framingham to Ipswich.]

This morning “we want to hear what do you think about the 30 percent goal? What levels of affordability?”

One tool in the IDP of which the mayor appears to put great faith is the density bonus to permit greater density in exchange for more developer-funded affordable units.

This is based on the unproven but wildly popular theory that increased development will increase affordability.

“How far can we use the density bonus?” asked Quirk.

“The 30 percent deed-restricted goal,” said Quirk, “will meet the needs of renters today and especially those 521 families facing the threat of displacement.”

“This goes above and beyond the IDP requirements and captures as much value for the community but maintains development  momentum,” he said.

With the IDP goal of 30 percent included in the zoning code, Quirk concluded “housing affordability will be the chief concern of all of Boston.”

Yet by the JP/Rox Plan’s own statistics, only 20 percent of those living in the boundary areas make up to $50,000 a year; by contrast 32 percent earn from $10,000 to $25,000 a year. The average two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,017 a month, or $12,204  a year; meaning a family earning $40,000  a year must pay 1/4 of its income for rent before food, utilities, health care, bus fare and car note.

BRA senior architect John Dalzell listens to Devin Quirk director of operations of DND. The 5th workshop was collaboration between the city's planning agency and the housing agency

Richard Heath

BRA senior architect John Dalzell listens to Devin Quirk director of operations of DND. The 5th workshop was collaboration between the city’s planning agency and the housing agency

Dalzell emphasized that the planning concepts were based in areas “where we can see change” in the future, such as parcels that are “underutilized or are in transition from commercial or light industry to residential.”

“We are planning for the rezoning of areas along Columbus Ave., Washington St. and Amory Street,” he said. “These zoning recommendations will be made [to the BRA board] at the end of summer.”

Dalzell then outlined the planning recommendations he said were based on “80-90 priority statements from the past four workshops.”

Overall the plan recommends 2,535 units of new housing largely built over ground floor retail, commercial or cultural uses. It envisions Forest Hills and Jackson Square as new gateway high-rise districts with buildings up to 15 stories tall.

The audience then fanned out to  five study  areas around the hall: Jackson Square, Egleston Square, Green Street, Stony Brook and Forest Hills, each coordinated by a BRA staffer. Everyone engaged in animated and enthusiastic conversations with markers moving and fingers pointing.

The most intense was the housing affordability table, hosted by Devin Quirk.  He handled the vexing questions asked by a wide circle of people of how deep the affordability should be, the levels of affordability and the new and confusing issue of the density bonus with his usual thoughtful aplomb.

The News has heard from many throughout the JP/Rox Plan process, which began in July 2015, that in the new zoning code, as-of-right development will be expanded and community input reduced if not removed, under the Article 80 preview process for developments above 20,000 square feet.

“Article 80 will still apply,” Nick Martin of the BRA told the Jamaica Plain News after the workshop, “in the same way that it does now to projects in areas that have been rezoned. We expect that any new zoning guidelines or amendments will inform the proposals of prospective developers as well as the community process when projects are reviewed. The community will still have as much of an opportunity  to weigh in on proposed developments.” [Emphasis added.]

While everyone was waiting to exhale, Dalzell cautioned that “it is highly unlikely that all of this will ever happen. The recommendations will change over time. Things will evolve. It’s a 15-20  year vision. ‘

The housing needs are great and some things will happen sooner.

“We  don’t want to draw out the process though,” he said.  He expected two more workshops to fine-tune the proposed development plan presented for the first time on March 5.

“Projects are already happening,” Dalzell admitted in response to  comments from the audience. “We want to take up these opportunities in the planning process. We are mid-way through this planning process.  We have at least until June.”

“We very much want to transition to zoning. That’s the tool cities use to govern growth.”

Using simple plastic lego blocks Housing Innovation Lab co director Marcy Ostberg unravels the mysteries of floor area ratio in zoning planning to Jessie Zimmerer legislative director for Senator Sonia Change Diaz.

Richard Heath

Using simple plastic Lego blocks Housing Innovation Lab co-director Marcy Ostberg unravels the mysteries of floor area ratio in zoning planning to Jessie Zimmerer, legislative director for Sen. Sonia Change Diaz.