Editor’s Note: Author Tim Reardon is on the Board of Directors of Egleston Square Main Street and a member of the PLAN JP/Rox Advisory Group.
Since before Mayor Walsh’s inauguration, community organizations in Jamaica Plain have been asking him to create a plan to guide development and expand housing opportunities along the corridor from Jackson Square to Forest Hills. Unfortunately, after an extended 18-month process, the city is on the verge of adopting a plan that may turn out to be worse than the status quo.
The draft of the plan released in October had its shortcomings, but it represented a reasonable, rational balance of our community’s diverse views about housing and neighborhood change. Since then, city staff have been subject to intense, private lobbying by a small group of insiders and protesters intent on discouraging development. Sadly, these tactics seem to have worked. On Monday, Jan. 9, the city released an amended plan that threatens to undermine the mayor’s stated goals.
The amended plan actually reduces the amount of new housing that could be built, with some of the most significant reductions occurring adjacent to T stations and on parcels owned by public agencies and nonprofits. These changes will provide little benefit to the area’s traffic challenges, which are mostly caused by through-traffic (not by residents). Plus, lower height limits and excessive suburban-style setback requirements will discourage creative designs and make it harder for new buildings to provide engaging, lively public spaces.
Other elements of the plan make it harder to build anything at all. The new plan increases the affordability requirements for the so-called “density bonus” units (those denser than current zoning) from 20 percent (in the October plan) to 30 percent. The 20 percent figure was based on robust financial modeling that struck a balance between strong targets and the fiscal realities facing developers. The new 30 percent goal is, by the city’s own admission, based on wishful thinking about falling land prices and occupancy assumptions that will be rejected out of hand by any reasonable lender. As a result, new housing won’t get built, or it will get scaled back so far that it will only be required to provide 13.5 percent of the units as affordable.
What’s the likely result? Rather than having a plan that provides a clear and predictable framework to satisfy the growing demand for housing in the community (and providing a substantial number of affordable units in the process), we’ll have a plan that discourages all but the most expensive market-rate housing and delivers only a few dozen privately financed affordable units. Its affordable housing goal, however lofty, won’t be achieved without massive increases in public housing subsidies, a dim prospect in the Trump era. The cost of existing units will continue to skyrocket, and the neighborhood will become affordable only to those who can afford a million dollar home or qualify for an affordable unit. Instead of a plan for success, we have a recipe for failure.
How did we get here? After 18 months of work, how is it that the city is poised to adopt a plan that flies in the face of city policy, financial reality and hard evidence about how to solve our housing affordability crisis? The early stages of the process reached hundreds of residents through a variety of different formats, but participation waned when meetings were repeatedly disrupted by protests intended to discourage civil debate. Into this void stepped two groups with a shared anti-development agenda: the “Neighborhood Alliance” comprised of longtime homeowners principally concerned about height, shadows, and parking; and “Keep It 100 For Real Affordable Housing And Racial Justice,” which views new market rate housing production as the cause of higher rents. These groups adopted the language of “preserving community character” and “maintaining diversity” yet the joint objective was clear: discourage new housing and the new residents it may bring.
With no accountability (and in the case of Keep it 100, not a single public meeting), these two groups nevertheless saw fit to represent “the community’s” perspective in “negotiations” with city officials in a series of closed-door meetings that took place in city hall over the course of the last three months. What started out as an inclusive, transparent, modern process grew to resemble the shadowy dealings we hoped the city had abandoned, where narrow interests are advanced through political connections, exclusion of newcomers, and personal meetings with the mayor.
This is not what we were promised. PLAN JP/Rox was not supposed to stifle development and discourage economic growth while enriching some people fortunate enough to own property in the corridor. Fortunately, there is still time to get things back on track. On Wednesday, Jan. 18, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) will hold another public meeting to solicit community feedback on the draft. The BPDA needs to hear that enough is enough. Unless the plan drops the damaging and counterproductive changes that have been made since October, it shouldn’t be approved.
If the fear and distrust that has been driving the recent plan changes doesn’t represent your vision for the neighborhood, please attend the meeting Jan. 18. If you believe that we can build new housing while also preventing the displacement of low-income residents, please speak up. If you believe that new activity, new stores and new jobs on Washington Street would be a net benefit to the surrounding area, please voice your opinion. And if you feel that new residents will enrich—not diminish—the special character of our community, please say so. Let’s adopt a progressive, forward-looking and realistic plan for the future of our community.