The response was mixed to the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s presentation at a North End community meeting regarding proposed guidelines for development along the edges of the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway. The July 19th meeting at the Mariner’s House in North Square was focused on the parcels in and near the North End/Waterfront neighborhood with respect to density, building heights, building interior and exterior uses, and streetscapes. Presenting the guideline recommendations were BRA city planners, Peter Gori and Lauren Schurtleff. North End resident Nancy Caruso organized and moderated the meeting.
The BRA’s Board of Directors was expected to approve the guidelines following the meeting on July 20th, but decided to postpone its vote until a later date. It is unclear if the questions raised at the meeting were the reason for the delay.
Mr. Gori said the BRA has reviewed over 350 comment letters and emails regading the study after seven public meetings held over the past year. After BRA Board approval, the guidelines will be used during BRA development reviews.
Making them more enforceable, the guidelines are expected to be “codified” and presented to the zoning commission to eventually make up zoning regulations. Similarly, the guidelines are the “first step” for the State to create an amended plan for the downtown waterfront’s Municipal Harbor Plan. Still, any development over 50,000 square feet will still have to go through the regular Article 80 review process.
A primary goal of the study, according to Mr. Gori, is to “ensure that development in no way detracts from the Greenway.” This was later questioned by residents concerned about the City’s intention to create a new Greenway district rather than protect the existing districts that make up the surrounding neighborhoods.
The BRA said they do not want developers to focus on the Greenway district for large-scale developments, preferring builders focus on the South Boston Waterfront, Allston/Brighton and sites such as the Government Center Garage area. As such, the BRA decided that smaller scale developments are more appropriate for the Greenway’s surrounding areas. Mr. Gori summed up the concept by saying that the “value created by the depression of the artery should be protected and the BRA does not want one developer to take away that value.” Although it was not stated as such, one could imply the “one developer” is Don Chiofaro, owner of International Place that has proposed 600’ high towers on the Harbor Garage site by the New England Aquarium.
The BRA presentation defended the Greenway’s perceived slow evolution, referring to the 12 years of demolition and rebuild of San Franscisco’s Embarcadero which collapsed during an earthquake. Also, the Perry Street area along the West Side Highway in New York City took 13 years to complete. According to the BRA’s consultants, the Greenway district’s real estate value has outperformed since the year 2000, as compared to the central city area.
The guideline recommendations include 4 million square feet or $1.4 billion of future development value. Longer term, the development envelope could expand further to 3-5 million square feet. The BRA’s figures cite a net increase of 9%-13% in terms of square footage. The BRA’s chief, Kairos Chen, has said, “It is not about building to make the Greenway successful, but making it irresistible to the people that are already here.” In a strong real estate market, the BRA estimates that Boston can build and sell a maximum of 1 million square feet in a year. Mr. Gori briefly reviewed the shadow and wind studies performed by the BRA. An interactive shadow tool developed by the BRA can be found here.
The North End part of the study focused on three areas along Cross Street. Brief comments were also made regarding the Harbor Garage site and the Government Center Garage area.
Cross Street Plaza
The “crescents” in front of the former Martignetti & Pace buildings on Cross Street are shown with “infill” of 55’ high buildings closer to the curb, potentially reducing the pedestrian area. These are long-term plans, according to Mr. Gori, because the recent re-tenanting by Citizen’s Bank would make any near-term change unlikely.
Parcel 11A – In front of Mother Anna’s
The guidelines call for a 55’ high building on parcel 11A in front of Mother Anna’s. Mr. Gori noted a main sewer line makes development difficult in this spot. “Any building there is not going to take up the entire outdoor seating area.”
Parcel 11B – Fulton St. Parking Lot
Most controversial at the meeting was the plan to establish the height on Parcel 11B, the existing Fulton St. parking lot, in a range of 55 to 85 feet. The BRA believes that the added height is needed along the tunnel side of the lot to allow for housing development, while also replacing the existing parking. Parcel 11B is currently owned by the BRA and used for rental parking.
Several residents objected to the 85’ height on Parcel 11B. Mr. Gori said the BRA is “not contemplating selling the parcel at this time. We can put restrictions on the site if/when that time comes, though no one is going to live on the north side of that property unless it is higher up given the grit and noise from the tunnel.”
In the Q&A period of the meeting, Victor Brogna commented that the “55 foot height limit has been an overarching zoning parameter to protect the character of the North End” and he opposed the 85’ height proposed for Parcel 11B. Mr. Brogna also objected to the BRA’s “de facto zoning” through the guideline study.
Government Center Garage
The BRA believes that the Government Center Garage (GCG) area, west of Congress Street has “potential for height.” In fact, the guidelines show a 600’ high tower on the site.
Louise Thomas of the West End Civic Association was surprised and disappointed that the Government Center Garage is part of the recommended guidelines because the GCG Impact Advisory Group determined that 3 surrounding neighborhoods (West End, North End, Beacon Hill) did not want those heights.
Mark Paul, a GCG IAG member, was also concerned about the GCG staying in the guidelines. “It subverts the process in a way, shifting the burden of proof to the IAG.” Mr. Gori said developers at GCG were asked to wait until the GDPS was completed.
Harbor Garage Redevelopment
With extensive media coverage and community input on the Harbor Garage parcel, there was limited discussion on the subject during this meeting. The basic conclusion from the study is to restrict the height to 200 feet, in line with the adjacent Rowes Wharf development. The owner/developer, Don Chiofaro, has been proposing higher towers on the site, up to 600 feet. With Harbor Towers (a 406’ high development) making up most of the immediate area’s residential population, there was general acceptance of the BRA’s 200’ height recommendation.
Bill Lane complemented the BRA on the guidelines. He noted that North End residents successfully opposed excessive heights at 585 Commercial St., 30 N. Margin St. and Harbor Garage. “Not one of those proposals moved forward” implying that North End residents will still retain the power to dictate future development in the area. Mr. Lane said, “the Greenway District Planning Study was meant to activate the Greenway and the BRA deserve a great deal of credit.”
Resident David Kubiak gave an extended speech staunchly opposing the guidelines. “Anyone knows this is about buildings. The Esplanade and Boston Common are not great parks because of the development around them. The BRA has a long history of getting rid of open space. They tried to put something at 585 Commercial St. before and they will try again. The Cross St. pedestrian area is not large enough today. It needs to be a bigger open space. Instead you are filling it in with buildings.” Kubiak continued, “The BRA did a bit of planning ahead of development (with this study). But they have done no master planning to suggest these developments are appropriate. Zoning should be changed in only two cases: when there is public urgency or a public consensus.”
“Why does the BRA always set up these fights?” asked Kubiak. “We will continue to fight. Please do not use this guidelines to change the zoning process. I have never been involved in a zoning process in this city where the public has a say. You said that you received a lot of comments. What have you changed based on the comments you received?”
Mr. Gori defended the guidelines as representative of community input, saying the BRA has been responding to comments for nearly 18 months. He noted that the Parcel 9 (Haymarket/Blackstone St.) RFP is exactly what the neighborhood wanted. Similarly, the height restriction on the Harbor Garage site is in response to the comments from abutters at Harbor Towers. The BRA believes the Cross St. area needs some continued development fabric to fill in a historic district, contribute housing and generate tax revenue. Mr. Gori noted there were also substantial changes to the Government Center Garage recommendations during the course of the study.
North End/Waterfront resident Bob Skole asked about a supermarket for the Parcel 7 garage site, where Trader Joes previously expressed interest. Mr. Gori said that another high-end market like Trader Joes does not serve the needs of the community. Instead, he expects the State to assign a developer (likely Trinity) to Parcel 2 A, B & C by North Station (next to Archstone Avenir) with plans to include an affordable supermarket. Parcel 7’s ground floor is expected to be designated for a “Made in Massachusetts” marketplace, separate from the Haymarket vendors. Separately, Dani Ross spoke up in favor of additional resident parking.
The official comment period is closed, but questions can be sent to the BRA at Peter.Gori.BRA@cityofboston.gov or Lauren.Shurtleff.BRA@cityofboston.gov. The BRA’s Board of Directors is expected to consider the guidelines at an upcoming meeting. BRA meetings are open to the public, but the public is not allowed to speak.