[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."
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.
'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.
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:
- Six-Story Apartment Building Proposed for Washington and Green Streets
- Residents Unhappy with Proposed Washington and Green Street Development
- JPNC Housing Committee Says 'No' to 3353 Washington St.
- BPDA Approves 45-Unit Building at 3353 Washington St.