Six-Story, 45-Unit Building Divides Residents, Neighborhood Board

Rendering of 3353 Washington St.

ISA

Rendering of 3353 Washington St.

 

[Editor’s note: Since the original posting, we’ve added context around a quote from the chairman of the JPNC Zoning Committee.]

A plan by the neighborhood’s best-known landlord for a six-story development at Washington and Green failed to win approval — or suffer disapproval – from a narrowly divided neighborhood advisory group.

Last month marked two years since Mordechai Levin started talks with the city to raze four existing buildings and erect a residential development with retail at 3353 Washington St. Current plans call for a 68-foot tall building with five stories plus rooftop mezzanines. In zoning terms, it’s a six-story building. However, Architect Deb Katz and her team have set back the rooftop elevations to reduce the “perception of massing.” The development team announced Wednesday it was adding two more “affordable” units, bringing the total to eight out of 45.

Former City Councilor Joins Development Team

Levin has brought on a powerful Boston player – former City Councilor Mike Ross – as attorney for the project. Ross addressed a crowd of 70 Wednesday night at the JP Neighborhood Council’s Zoning Committee meeting.

“Affordability has come up as massing has come down,” said the sharply dressed Ross, who made a bid for mayor in 2013. “In order to do this project, we felt we were as aggressive [on affordability] as we could be.”

Mike Ross, left, addresses the JPNC Zoning Committee and residents, Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

Chris Helms

Mike Ross, left, addresses the JPNC Zoning Committee and residents, Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

Much debate centered on what standard of affordability the project should meet to get the neighborhood’s blessing. The current proposal has 18 percent of the units at various levels of what Boston terms affordable. When Levin first pitched the proposal in March 2015, the city’s minimum was that 13 percent of units be affordable. The JPNC has long urged transit-oriented developments like this one – which would stand just two blocks from Green Street Station – to meet a standard of 25 percent affordable units.

Petition for Greater Affordability Launched

Having 1 in 4 units priced affordably is the demand of neighbors who have banded together as the “Green Street Renters Association.” One of the group’s members, Helen Matthews, launched a petition to that effect. As of Wednesday night, the online version of it had 460 signatures. Paper copies are also circulating.

Matthews, a longtime housing advocate who also goes by “Homefries,” was among the Green Street Renters Association members who spoke Wednesday. She urged Zoning Committee members to either vote down the proposed development or table the vote and ask the developer to continue meeting with neighbors.

Rendering of ground floor for 3353 Washington St.

ISA

Rendering of ground floor for 3353 Washington St.

‘For’ and ‘Against’

The project received significant support at Wednesday’s meeting, which was held at Farnsworth House. Jamaica Plain News counted nine residents speaking clearly in favor of the proposal and 11 firmly against.

Bill Reyelt, a backer, made a point repeated by several people who spoke in favor of the plan: that the city desperately needs more housing.

“We’ve got to find a way to produce housing faster,” he said.

Several union carpenters showed up to demonstrate their support for the project. Ross said only union labor will be used on the project.

A staunch critic of the current proposal, Union Avenue’s Marie Turley, countered that Mayor Marty Walsh’s plan to add 53,000 units by 2030 has already reached half its goal. She said the city doesn’t have to rush plans opposed by abutters. Turley has long argued the six-story development is out of character with the one-, two- and three-story homes surrounding it. Turley – herself a person of powerful political connections as former head of the Boston Women’s Commission – decried Ross’ new role in shepherding the project past opposition.

“Mike Ross has come on and they’re trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” Turley said.

Rendering showing reductions in size since first plan announced two years ago.

ISA

Rendering showing reductions in size since first plan announced two years ago.

No Decision

In the end, the Zoning Committee could not reach consensus. Motions to approve the project, to approve it with provisos asking for the addition of one or more affordable units, and to reject it outright, all failed to pass.

Dave Baron, chairman of the Zoning Committee, made it plain that he would not support any Levin project in isolation from the developer’s larger footprint across JP – often seen in long-vacant buildings.

“We shouldn’t come forward [to support] anything when you have fenced-off parking lots and vacant bowling alleys,” said Baron, referencing Levin’s infamous decision to keep the old Bella Luna property in Hyde Square untenanted for years. “For me, it’s personal.”

Baron later clarified to Jamaica Plain News that what he meant was that his concerns were specific to Levin as a developer, and not that they were personal between the two men.

Supporters of Levin, a lightning-rod figure, note that he invested in JP when others would not and that his efforts have resulted in neighborhood-anchoring developments like the Stop and Shop in Jackson Square.

‘Many Interesting Things’ on Tap for Levin Properties

Ross, speaking for his client, who was not at Wednesday’s meeting, hinted that other Levin properties would be making news soon.

“We have a good story to tell,” Ross said, “there are so many interesting things he’s going to do.”

The project is slated to appear before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on May 9. There are eight variances it would need to be built as currently planned, including having less parking than zoning requires and being too tall. The ZBA may take into account a lack of neighborhood support such as the failure of the project to get the JPNC Zoning Committee’s blessing. But it makes its own decisions.

The project already has so-called “Article 80” approval from the Boston Planning and Development Agency. That December 2016 green light sticks in the craw of the project’s detractors as a rush job so that requirements of the then-coming “Plan JP/Rox” would not necessarily apply.

Jamaica Plain News has covered this development extensively. Here are previous articles about it:

  • Robert Ellis

    It looks like Helen Matthews is also the Communications Manager of City Life Vida Urbana.

    http://www.clvu.org/staff

    The “Green Street Renters Association” must be another City Life NIMBY proxy group, like they create for every new development (see Keep It 100, etc.)

    18% affordable sounds pretty generous. That’s 8 affordable units which will be created in the neighborhood. But City Life wants to stop the development, not create more housing. The building also looks 100 times nicer than the decrepit thing across the street.

    Maybe City Live should start doing their own 100% affordable developments instead of fighting every development. They receive almost $1,000,000 a year in contributions and grants.

    http://990.erieri.com/EINS/042660311/042660311_2014_0c3081c4.PDF

    Their stated mission on their tax return is “ETHNIC/RACIAL HARMONY THROUGH AFFORDABLE HOUSING & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.”

    I don’t see how fighting every single development in JP is helping them achieve their mission, or is even related to it.

    • Marty

      and I don’t see why you must fight every single objection that comes up around development in JP. For the record, I am not a member of CityLife or any other group. For months I have read your very long posts here with an open mind. However, I’m starting to see a pattern with you and “I don’t see how fighting every single” objection is helping anyone in JP except the deep pockets of developers….perhaps you are one of them?

      • Robert Ellis

        The objection is always the same. No development should be allowed unless it has 25% affordability. That never happens. I would rather see JP’s deteriorating, run-down buildings and lots replaced with new buildings. The new developments generally replace run-down and vacant buildings and lots. I think that is a positive for the neighborhood regardless of how many of the units that get built are “affordable.” I would rather see new buildings with no affordable units than no new buildings. I think it would still improve the aesthetics and quality of life of the neighborhood.

        • Marty

          But what’s the rush? You know that it’s only a matter of time before every single square mile is taken up – it’s already happening. Why not slow down the ongoing train so that EVERYONE gets to have a piece of the pie even if it’s smaller than the people of more means. Also, it is very wise for EVERYONE (don’t mean to shout it’s for emphasis) to vet the builders, especially those with a lot of baggage behind them. A building it’s permanent, at least for many, many years. I, for one, would rather see so called “run down” places, many of which represent another time, than modern monstrosities.

          • Robert Ellis

            I do hear you and respect your point of view. There are definitely buildings which have architectural and historical value and should be preserved.

            I just don’t think the same can be said about Washington St.’s “auto row” which is mostly single story brick/concrete buildings with no windows, and parking lots. That seems to be where most of the development is taking place. I suspect when those buildings were built, other things were knocked down. They do not look like they were built 100 years ago. We all agree JP needs more housing and putting it there creates a net gain in residential housing units.

            I also have posed the (rhetorical) question before, which builders do not have “baggage” behind them in the eyes of the local activists? Please don’t name any nonprofit as Lisa has done above.

          • Marty

            I can’t answer your question because it’s impossible. In a capitalist society, we are all part of the entire enterprise. For example, look at how Mr. Levin is being represented by Mike Ross, an ultra-liberal ex-politician who made a name for himself by being “for the little guy.” However, Mr. Levin is not known for his egalitarian practices but I’m sure he can pay a nice hefty sum to have someone with Ross’s reputation represent him. I used to live at Union Avenue a long time ago when it was pretty derelict looking but full of honest, hard working people, a mix of renters and owners. We all thought having the Police station move nearby would change things but it didn’t although new housing went up slowly and it’s now a very nice JP street. The neighbors have every right to want to have input into what goes in their neighborhood especially if they stuck it out when developers and others could care less about the area. I don’t see them saying “don’t build” – they are saying, we want to have a say on what gets built.

    • Lisa Marie Garver

      Robert, why are you making unnecessary connections? There are so many assumptions here and yet again attacking good peoplewho care about our community. Please do me a favor and meet me in person or come to a meeting at either clvu or green st renters. Then at least you can attack people that you actually know something about.

      • Robert Ellis

        I care about the community too. I want it to look newer and nicer.

        • Lisa Marie Garver

          Just to clarify, when I use the words “our community” I mean the people that make it up. “Nice” is relative. “New” is superficial. You are a person to and although you seem to always have some nefarious assumptions about them, clvu caresabout you too

    • Helen Matthews

      Hello Robert – yes, very proud to work at City Life, a 44-year old community-based organization that supports low-income families facing a housing crisis. I’m also very proud that my neighbors have formed an independent residents association to engage in and improve the redevelopment of the Washington St. Corridor. The Green St. Renters Association is neither a City Life group nor a NIMBY group, it’s just neighbors that want to help preserve and engage in the community. The group believes Mordechai Levin can do better for the neighborhood by building 25% affordable housing at 3353 Washington St. It’s a moderate ask that will benefit the neighborhood, and Mordechai should do it. Thanks for reading.

      • Robert Ellis

        What other developers have done 25%?

        • Lisa Marie Garver

          First of all, JPNDC and partners have/will.

          Second, since when do people have to accept low standards just because it wasn’t done before?

          Mr levin says that hes loyal to JP as if developers aren’t foaming at the mouth to build here. We are asking for more and we go as far as we can to make sure those living here don’t get forced out in pursuit of new and nice.

          • L.J.

            JPNDC has funding sources (foundations, government programs, grants, private donations) that are not available to private developers that makes higher ratios of affordable units possible for them. Private developers need to recoup enough on sales/rentals to meet the loan obligations they take on to do the development as well as pay contractors, staff and themselves. I love the JPNDC model, but they aren’t able to tackle every project. There can be unpleasant economic realities related to development that should not be ascribed to “low standards” or evil intentions toward the neighborhood by private developers. We need to support efforts like JPNDC and look to create other similar actors.

          • Eric Herot

            It should further be noted that, because of JPNDC’s limited funding sources, their projects are often small and relatively low density. This tends to mean that while they are often offering a high *percentage* of affordable units, the absolute number of affordable units is only slightly higher than would be achieved by a market rate developer building a larger project with the usual 18% ratio. And as a result we get far less transit-accessible housing overall than we otherwise would. This is itself a problem because by some analyses, adding two units to the market rate pool has roughly the same rent-moderating effect as adding a single subsidized unit.

          • Eric Herot

            Also, Lisa, it would be really helpful to the affordable housing movement if you could find an example of a completely privately funded project somewhere in the country (one that had to pay full market price for the land, unlike 3200 Washington), that was built with 25 percent affordability because if you did we would be able to present that project to these developers (and their financiers) as guideline for getting what we want. My understanding of the numbers is that projects in areas with market prices like JP generally don’t work with affordability percentages that high, but I would be happy to be proven wrong.

  • Local yokel

    Same thing happening at 632-638 Centre. The quaintness and charm is being driven out with brick boxes that are not pretty. Tiny apartments (rooming house). Overshadowing buildings. There are 72 apts for rent in JP right now. I do not believe in a housing shortage at all. Pretty soon we will have a glut. And no green spaces in housing areas, just solid 4-5 story buildings. Density. Sad. ☹️

    • Eric Herot

      There are 15,441 households in the 02130 zip code. This would make for a vacancy rate of 1.5%. By most standards anything under 5% is considered a shortage. 1.5% would be a crisis.

      • Local yokel

        Rentals? 15,441 rentals?

        • Eric Herot

          JP is about 54% renters, so even if you only want to count those households, the rate is still only about 2.3%, which is still crisis level.

  • GoatWatch

    “For me, it’s personal.” – Dave Baron
    Well there you go. Baron has admitted he is not acting objectively and without bias. Shouldn’t a large development project with substantial affordability be evaluated on its merits? Methinks this kangaroo court has overstayed its welcome.

    • Marty

      So what are you suggesting? Do you agree or disagree? where is the constructive dialogue?

      • GoatWatch

        My comment was not about approving or disapproving of the project (for the record, I believe it is a fine project), but rather, about this whole process. I think Dave Baron just admitted bias in his decision, and therefore should not be in a position to chair a board which has official weight with city hall and, ultimately, with the approval or denial of the project.

        This is impropriety, plain and simple. How are we to trust that he would weigh a project closer to his house the same as one on the other side of town? It delegitimizes the whole process.

        • JamaicaPlainNews

          Hi GoatWatch,

          Baron later explained to us that if we quoted him correctly, he didn’t mean there was something personal between him and Levin. We’ve updated the story with that added context.

          • GoatWatch

            I appreciate the clarification. For the record, I still believe a project should be considered on its own merits, alone. Nonetheless, I applaud Baron for listening to this friendly neighborhood goat.

          • Vlad Richey

            So let me get this straight, the argument against Levin is that he’s not doing enough with his real estate, so therefore he shouldn’t be allowed to do more with his real estate? “That’s one hell of a catch, that catch-22”

            If he was trying to develop all of these sites at once, then everyone would complain he was overwhelming the neighborhood. Now that he’s trying to address one at a time, people complain he’s holding down the neighborhood.

            And if he did decide to stop developing and lease these spaces as-is, the same people would be on here complaining if it’s a chain, or another coffee shop, or heaven forbid, a restaurant that charges a service fee…

  • Lisa Marie Garver

    The usual suspects are here in the peanut gallery, hiding behind fake accounts and making unsubstantiated claims. Why are these fake accounts allowed? JP news, thank you for attending and reporting on this meeting. I was sick and couldn’t attend. This was a thorough and fair report. I’m also really thankful of all the people that started the green street renters group, esp Homefries. She is dimply the sweetest and a very talented photographer. Most if them arent even as vulnerable as the people living in Greenville Group rooming houses. If these places go, we are toast. Many of us are working min wage and in some way emotionally/mentally and some physically disabled but not enough to qualify for housing or financial support. Most all are people of color that face housing discrimination throughout the city. But all if us are so hard working we dont have time to organize.

    Some people dont like tall buildings and i get that but I think people are more important. I hope the union ave folks can get over their disdain of shade.

    That said, i never see details of how or why its not possible for developers to make more affordable housing?

    I wont be answering anything less than reasonable questions proposed in kind questions from people with real names so please dont waste our time

    • GoatWatch

      I’m sorry, are you complaining that people on the internet aren’t using their real name? Try to look past the surface and read the comments. I know you like to judge people by their appearance, but maybe try engaging in constructive dialogue instead.

      Also what exactly makes an account fake? How do we know you’re not fake? Too many questions left unanswered. Sad!