West End neighbors went ballistic this week after the Garden Garage project, previously denied by city officials, came back for further review with only two fewer stories (from 46 to 44; 465 feet to 447) and few other changes from the original proposal. Since 2011, Equity Residential has sought to replace the Garden Garage located at 35 Lomasney Way in Boston’s West End with a residential tower, currently proposed with 470 units.
A November 4th Impact Advisory Group (IAG) meeting hosted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority started with approximately 45-50 people, according to residents, with the vast majority walking out in protest.
West End resident and IAG member, Louise Thomas, presented a statement at the meeting:
It is difficult to participate in a process that has only given lip service to our community’s overwhelming concerns. This is borne out by the recent new Notice of Project Change that delivers nothing meaningful from the developer in the form of real “change.”
Thomas provided NorthEndWaterfront.com a timeline going back to early 2011 when the Project Notification Form was first submitted and the IAG initially convened. She recalls a controversial side dealing agreement between the developer and abutting condo board member regarding a mutually-shared loading dock area. The quid pro quo–if a mutually satisfactory agreement was to be reached, the IAG member would deliver his Board’s support for the developer’s proposed project. There was also the case in 2014 of a developer employee who attempted to intimidate an IAG member through her employer as retribution for negative comments made about the project.
In April 2015, the BRA Director of Development Erico Lopez told the IAG that the BRA decided not to recommend the project as proposed. The BRA said they would write a Preliminary Adequacy Determination (PAD) requiring Equity to respond in a Final Project Impact Report (FPIR). According to residents, this has not happened, and comment letters sent by 700+ people have not been acknowledged or answered. Thomas writes:
We are mystified and outraged about what happened to the promised process and what, in fact, are meaningless “changes” to the project: less than 20 feet shorter, but wider, more massive, with reduced open space.
At an October 20, 2015 IAG meeting to review this Notice of Project “Change,” the BRA Project Manager says the BRA are now satisfied and want to move the process forward to a discussion of public benefits and mitigation, followed by a comment period that ends right after Thanksgiving and just before Christmas. The BRA will then decide to go (or not) to their Board for project approval. As a result, an important member of the community resigned from the IAG in protest of a grossly flawed process meant to convey a “done deal.”
As a member of the IAG, I cannot in good conscience continue to participate in a process that has so flagrantly ignored our community’s concerns. The Impact Advisory Group members have volunteered many unpaid hours on this proposed project for five years and have duly followed the Article 80 process rules and guidelines. Obviously, the BRA thinks it is OK to outline and promise an extended process and then change their mind. It only confirms what we have long suspected: that the BRA is really only a development agency with a big toolbox vs. the planning agency they also claim to be. This proposal dilutes and destroys the kind of neighborhood we have worked so hard to rebuild after the BRA’s last attempt here at urban renewal. We thought the BRA apologized and promised this would never happen again, but evidently that is not true.
Without affordable new development that encourages people to stay and put down roots, our neighborhood will become just another transient, uninvolved community. So this is not the time to discuss mitigation or community benefits – that can only come after the building itself is mitigated. The BRA needs to step up to the task and keep its promise to us by requiring Equity Residential to appropriately redesign their project to meet our and the Mayor’s housing goals.
Another IAG member, Kathleen Ryan, shared her resignation letter from the Impact Advisory Group, shown below.
Dear Mayor Walsh:
Please accept this communication as my formal resignation from the Impact Advisory Group for the above proposed project. I have attempted several times through various channels to meet with you at your convenience to explain why I am taking this step, but have not had any success.
I do this with no small amount of disappointment and sadness about how this proposal and BRA review has unfolded. In the capacity of an “advisor” selected to give input/feedback to the BRA and developer, I thought what I and my fellow IAG members (and indeed my neighbors) had to say was important enough to be truly considered, with a positive result for all. I was happy to spend the hours and hours needed over the past five years to achieve this goal. Instead, here is what we have endured:
A 2011 PNF in which we received a proposed design so out of synch with our neighborhood and its Urban Renewal Plan that it needed significant zoning relief to even be considered. I guess this is the way most of these things start out — the developer presents more than they actually want to build and then pretend to shave it down for the supposed benefit of the neighborhood.
Shortly after, we were shown several alternatives by the developer, Equity Residential, that were again so out of scale that each required significant zoning relief. And none of the alternatives substantially even considered IAG input and hundreds of residents’ comment letters about the original design’s significant massing, size, affordable housing or traffic issues.
Then a scoping determination and DPIR were done, after which all went silent for the next two years. The IAG could never learn what, if anything, was transpiring and had the foolish hope that no news was good news.
Finally in October 2014, with no heads up from the BRA, we received a Notice of Project Change (the first of two). Once more, we were presented with another, even higher single tower. The NPC proposal was so massive that, like the others before, it STILL required significant zoning relief since it didn’t conform to either the PDA or Urban Renewal Plan’s underlying zoning. But the BRA charged ahead and had the zoning commission approve spot zoning changes to allow this proposed design. And they did it without noticing the IAG or abutters except in a Boston Herald notice that never even mentioned the West End or the Garden Garage proposal. So we had no chance to take time off from our real jobs and speak at the hearing. How transparent is that??
To add insult to injury, and this is very personal for me, one of the developer’s representatives wrote an email to my employer attempting to get me fired for making written remarks about the project. The allegations were harassing, intimidating, and resulted in great personal embarrassment for me with my employer in addition to the concern that I could lose my job. I wrote apologies to my management, and when a newspaper article about the incident was published, it was widely circulated at my place of employment. You certainly can imagine how horrible this was for me. Although the BRA raised objections to the developer and demanded they do something, the developer refused to dismiss their representative and he remains, to this day, gainfully employed by Equity Residential behind the scenes. How is that for any real accountability?? (And please note I am writing this letter on my own personal time.)
In order to duly follow the guidelines outlined in a real Article 80 process, we attempted to meet deadlines imposed throughout this process at most inconvenient times, and before Christmas 2014, we managed a letter-writing campaign in our neighborhood. More than 650 residents took the time to submit letters objecting to the current design and asking the BRA to work with us and the developer for something that fit the neighborhood and your own workforce housing goals.
As a result, Jerome Smith and Brian Golden were gracious to meet with us to discuss the comments in the letters, the project itself and the zoning approval fiasco. We were promised a more extensive process and afterward, the Director of Development wrote us that the BRA would not recommend the project and was going to issue a PAD and require an FPIR from the developer. The stated intent was that Equity would come back with a more reasonable design that we could all work with. We were foolish enough once again to hope we had a chance for a real say about what would happen in our beloved neighborhood.
And finally, here we are now in late 2015. The PAD and FPIR have never materialized, all our comment letters have never been either acknowledged or answered (including a letter from the Hawthorne Place attorney), and we were just told there would be no PAD or FPIR. Instead, what we have now been given is a second NPC, and there are once again no material changes!! It is still too massive, requires significant zoning relief, and the BRA says you, our Mayor, like the design and want to move it forward!
In essence, we are being told that regardless of the five years of unpaid sweat equity by countless neighbors and the IAG, it just does not matter, this is moving forward. While the BRA will wait for comment letters, they are due on December 7th, conveniently (for the BRA and developer) right in between Thanksgiving and Christmas — does this sound familiar? After that, the BRA will “decide” if it will go to the December BRA Board meeting for project approval. WHAT A PROCESS — WHERE IS THE ULTIMATE ACCOUNTABILITY??
Mr. Mayor, that is it in a rather large nutshell. I wanted to tell you this personally and implore you to consider what we are saying — we know our neighborhood best. We know also that it is possible to design a development we can all be proud of and that meets your goals, our goals, and makes the developer its healthy profit. I truly hope you will read this email and understand why I am resigning from this process. I would be so pleased if you cared enough to get me back at the IAG table with the promise of a reasonably designed development for our neighborhood and our residents.
Kathleen M. Ryan