Plan B went into full effect at the 6th Plan JP/Rox workshop last Wednesday as 50 protesters marched into the room clapping. Just as the emcee, Senior Planner Marie Mercurio, was concluding her opening remarks, the protesters grabbed what they called “the people’s mic” to “fight not for profit but for the community.”
For over an hour, “Keep it 100% for Egleston,” a well-organized and well-rehearsed group, listed its demands to stop the Boston Redevelopment Authority-sponsored Plan JP/Rox for three months.
Plan JP/Rox is a once-in-a-generation rezoning process for the whole Washington Street and Columbus Avenue corridors in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.
The protest group, which is comprised both young people as well as adults, alternated speakers using a call-and-response format. A speaker would say a line that was repeated in unison by the audience, calling the planning process broken.
“The BRA already had a plan before it started,” said Roxbury civics teacher Op Banjinweh and the audience repeated the line back to him. “They asked the wrong questions and so they got the wrong answers. They refuse to listen. Now we will make them listen.”
The group, which included Affordable Housing Egleston and City Life/Vida Urbana, stated in a hand-out that it had met twice with BRA Director Brian Golden and once with Department of Neighborhood Development Chief of Housing Sheila Dillon in January and February but were frustrated that the two agencies were not making the connection with neighborhood income and the costs of housing in the JP/Rox area.
“We have a plan! We know what we’re talking about. We want to keep people here! Three more months! Three more months!” chanted the group.
Keep it 100% Egleston cites gaps in plan
The housing group said there are 10 missing pieces in Plan JP/Rox.
The biggest piece was the income- to -housing cost gap. Plan JP/Rox has called for 30 percent of all new units to be affordable at between 70 percent and 50 percent of the Area Median Income (not Boston city limits median income). The demonstrators insist that 70 percent of all new units be set aside as affordable; one half for families earning at or below $35,000 and 20 percent for families above $35,00o. The demonstrators say this represents the income of the people who live in the planning area.
The second-biggest missing piece is financing. The housing advocates criticize the BRA for only looking at density bonuses and inclusionary zoning to underwrite new housing starts, leaving this decision entirely up to the private developer. Advocates say that the level of affordability in both financing strategies — 70 percent of Area Median Income — is far too high; almost triple, said one organizer, the income of most JP/Rox area residents.
Affordable housing protesters offer 4 solutions
The advocates offered four solutions for financing low- and moderate-income housing:
- Low Income Housing Credits (4 percent and 9 percent.)
- Developer set asides for voucher holders.
- City funding for rental subsidies and vouchers. The $5 million Housing First voucher program currently before the City Council would provide housing for 350 homeless families and individuals.
- Creative use of Chapter 121a of the Massachusetts tax code for developers to provide low income housing.
“We have shared these ideas again and again,” Keep it 100% said in its handout, “but the BRA has not analyzed these solutions or responded to them.”
“Rezoning is resegregation,” said Danielle Sommer, a teacher-artist from Egleston Square and the audience repeated her chant. “Rezoning is red lining. Who will get displaced? Who will move here?”
People of color say their voices aren’t being listened to
Missing piece No. 3 is harder to quantify. Keep it 100% Egleston maintains that Plan JP/Rox does not respect people of color.
‘The vast majority of participants in the JP/Rox meetings have been white,” the group’s statement declares, “and the vast majority of key city agency leaders in the meetings have been white. Many people of color and renters have expressed the opinion that the BRA is not seriously listening [to them].”
The chants went on for an hour; the demonstrators had their own charts that speakers explained and the audience repeated back on.
Not a standoff but an exchange of views
Good humor and tolerance prevailed. The planned workshop stations for Jackson Square and Green Street and Forest Hills and the other sections were open for business as participants drifted over to listen and talk simultaneously with the counter-workshop at the other end of the room.
The housing advocates drifted to the back of the room where BRA Deputy Director for Economic Development Dana Whiteside stood at his station to talk about the potential for jobs and businesses in the JP/Rox area.
Instead he found himself surrounded by dozens of demonstrators who engaged him with both one-on-one and group discussions about their concerns. It was not loud or confrontational but a spontaneous meeting with someone from the BRA that the advocates apparently felt comfortable with and Whiteside took it all with dignified aplomb. He handed out his business card and took a few notes.
“It’s great that you’ve been making noise,” he said. “I grew up in this neighborhood. It’s great to see so many types of people engaged. It’s the way that makes change.”
He advised the group to give him a list of their demands in short bullet points.
“I very much appreciate what you’re doing,” Whiteside said. ‘Thank you.”
“We’re all change agents here,” one woman told him.
One leader of Keep it 100% stepped outside the circle around Whiteside to announce at the microphone, “We just spoke with Dana Whiteside. He said he would get back to us in a week. We will get back to him after that.”
Draft recommendations on housing
In this workshop emerging housing recommendations of the final plan were outlined. These included:
30 percent of all new housing starts — estimated at 100 units — would be affordable.
1.Publicly assisted development.
Preserve affordable housing units.
Prioritize public land for affordable housing development. Estimated to be nearly 150 acres of city and state owned land including the Arborway Yard and 125 Amory St.
Identify and fund affordable housing developments. There are 225 deed-restricted housing units either under construction or approved.
2. Private development.
Thirteen percent of the units required to be 70 percent of Area Median Income. Density bonuses for units at 5o percent AMI.
It was estimated that over 1.2 million square feet of privately owned property could be available including warehouse structures, auto repair garages, junk yards, surface parking and vacant land.
If none of these actions takes place, the JP/Rox preliminary plan predicts that the study area will evolve into 77 percent luxury and 22 percent deed restricted (public or voucher) housing.
For Jackson Square at the end of Amory Street and at Forest Hills the plan remains as it was in March: clusters of buildings 6-15 stories high.
The study area unit number has been reduced by 310 for a proposed 3,407 units of new housing (of which 30 percent would be affordable at 70 percent of AMI.)
‘Not the neighborhood I want to live in’
As with the previous five workshops, the meeting concluded with neighborhood station wrap-ups but in keeping with the improv nature of this one, the microphone was open to anyone who had a statement.
Modesto Sanchez of Keep 100% Egleston stepped up and said, “Stop the process for three months until you can show us 70 percent of affordable housing for families making $35,000 or less.”
Sarah Horsely, a board member of The Boston Tenant Coalition, said the BRA has to look at the income of those living in the study area now. She added that with more luxury housing coming, more and more of renters who have to pay market rate will be displaced. “This is not the neighborhood I want to live in,” she said.
It’s not the neighborhood Marie Turley wants to live in either, but for a different reason. She said the new buildings being planned are twice the height of the demolished Orange Line elevated line. She doesn’t mind the bold new architecture designs but urged planner to “take it down to the street level. We live in neighborhood of 2 to 3 story buildings. We believe in you [the BRA] but do you want these buildings on your street?”
Sue Pranger of the Egleston Square Neighborhood Association agreed with the housing demonstrators that there be a halt to the planning process “so we can digest this.”
But what many seem to want is not a halt on the planning process but a halt on the development process. In a recent pubic letter signed by 17 residents from Forest Hills to Egleston Square including Pranger, the point was made clear:
“Asking the community to work with one office of the BRA on new zoning while another office of the BRA allows developers to skirt the intent of new zoning is unwise, counterproductive and wrong.”
Next steps as end of process is in sight
“We’ve met eight times since July,” summed up Mercurio, BRA’s senior planner for Jamaica Plain. “We’re rounding out the planning phase and getting close to the zoning phase. We’re really trying to incorporate so many thoughts. We can only recommend so many. We haven’t quite figured it all out yet.” But she made clear that “Article 80 is not going away.”
Article 80 is an elaborate set of guidelines for the development-review process.
A draft final Plan JP/Rox and recommendations workshop is scheduled for June and the new zoning regulations are scheduled to go before the BRA board on July 14.
Two more community meetings are scheduled with a hearing planned for September at the Boston Zoning Commission.