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Changes at the "eleventh hour"

by Kate Vander Wiede
Managing Editor
Tuesday Dec 13, 2011
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150-foot building height on Shawmut concerns Eight Streets

The Harrison-Albany Corridor Strategic Plan will bring immense change to the east side of the South End over the next several decades. Skyscrapers will be welcomed to rise up near the highway, roadways will be made more pedestrian- and car-friendly, and residential housing opportunities will explode in the New York Streets district, near E. Berkeley St.

The Corridor’s two-and-a-half-year planning process is quickly coming to a close, with the Boston Redevelopment Authority and Boston Zoning Commission gearing up to look at the final planning study in December and January, respectively.

A group of residents from the Eight Streets Neighborhood Association have begun to raise their voices in opposition, though, to a specific point: the maximum height allowed near the boundary of their association.

Called the Harrison-Albany Corridor study, the plan actually increases maximum building heights in the northern part of the South End from Albany St. to Shawmut Ave. Under the new plan, a corner of the Shawmut Ave/E. Berkeley intersection would be considered a "planned development area," where building heights could rise to 150 feet.

A planned development area is "an overlay zoning district," explains the final drafted Harrison-Albany Plan on the BRA’s website, where a building, cluster of buildings or mix of uses could be constructed under the supervision of more flexible zoning laws. In exchange for constructing higher or dense buildings, developers would be required to provide things like open spaces, streetscape improvements and jobs to the community.

John McLachlan, president of the Eight Streets Neighborhood Association, said in a letter to the BRA that Eight Streets residents are "happy with the overall corridor plan, and respect the hard work that has gone into producing this final draft report," but asked that the plan reduce the maximum height along Shawmut to its original 70 or 100 feet, at most.

"We feel that a building of such height, at that intersection, would be a burden on local residents and is out of scale with the abutting neighborhoods," he wrote.

ESNA was also worried about the shadow a 150-foot building would create, though the BRA’s Deputy Director of Community Planning Randi Lathrop said shadows would not impact Peters Park or the Berkeley Garden. Lathrop said she and her staff members have spoken with each of the five people who wrote letters in opposition to the plan recently.

Old Dover Neighborhood Association and advisory group member Bob Wells said changes on Shawmut Ave. are necessary "You have to span Washington Street to make any of this stuff work," Wells said after a Dec. 7 advisory group meeting. "Then you’re halfway up to Shawmut already and you have parking lots that are ripe for development along the road."

"We decided to go up to Shawmut because the New York Streets was an urban renewal areas," added Lathrop. "All the zoning we adopted in 1997 did not work for [the New York Streets]. Nothing was changed...that area did not get better."

Nick Fedor, executive director of Washington Gateway Main Streets said that including Washington St. and its surrounding area in the plan would "enable and create an environment for that section of Washington Street to catch up with the rest of Washington Street so there is a more contiguous Main Street."

The Harrison-Albany Corridor Strategic Plan was created in 2007 by Mayor Tom Menino, who hoped to spur development and job growth in an area of the South End that was lagging behind the rest. The BRA, which led the process, asked for nominations from the community and Boston at large to the plan’s advisory group, finally whittling down 90 applicants to 33. Thirteen of those members currently live in the South End, with many non-residents - like restaurateur Jeff Gates and Chinatown activist Bill Moi - representing the interests of businesses and surrounding communities.

The plan breaks the east side of the South End into four subdistricts - the New York Streets, SoWa, the Back Streets, and the Medical Area. Zoning amendments to the South End Zoning Code will allow for, generally, greater building heights throughout the entire district. It also requires developer to create incentives for the community if they want to build higher: more affordable housing, public green spaces or meeting spaces, commercial storefronts and more. A full version of the plan, a draft the proposed zoning amendments and notes from every advisory group meeting are available on the BRA’s website at tinryurl.com/Harrison-Albany.

The plan has been hashed out over 16 public meetings, and though everyone in the advisory group agrees with the plan now, member David Goldman said that was not always the case.

"I remember thinking to myself at the first meeting, ’How are these people ever going to come to an agreement?’ I remember thinking, ’I don’t know how this is going to work,’" he recalled.

The fact that there is disagreement within the ESNA now, at the planning process’s end, struck some as odd.

"You can’t come in at the eleventh hour and say, ’Oh, wait a minute, I know you’ve been working for the last two and a half years and I’ve been ignoring it, but...," said Susan Sullivan, trailing off. Executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, Sullivan has attended most of the meetings, despite the fact the planning area doesn’t include her area.

Marc Lacasse, speaking as a member of the advisory group (he is also the president of Washington Gateway Main Streets), said, "given the fact that we’ve had 16 public meetings over two and a half years and an exhaustive public process, I think any objections to come of the more technical aspects of the zoning amendments would be rather late-coming."

Douglas Upton of the ESNA, though, feels that he was pushed out of the planning process from the get-go.

In July 2009, Upton said he attended a meeting of the advisory group at the Franklin House, where he asked the group chair why no one from the Eight Streets Neighborhood Association was appointed to the committee.

"He checked with Randi Lathrop ... who looked at the map on the table and stated that it was because the ESNA lies outside the Harrison Albany Corridor district," recalled Upton in an email. "Then she sort of laughed. It ended with that - no indication that they would still value the participation of people from ESNA or somehow factor in our opinions in the process."

Lathrope said she does not recall the conversation, but that the reason Eight Streets did not have representation in the group was because Eight Streets never nominated someone for the advisory group.

"I’ve never said someone couldn’t participate. All the meetings have been open, they’ve always been on the BRA’s website, and we have had a lot of people attend over the two-and-a-half years," said Lathrope, a longtime South End resident, former president of the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association, and a member of the original Washington Street Task Force.

Bill Moi, an activist from Chinatown who, early in the planning process, advocated successfully for more Chinatown representation on the planning committee said he felt someone not feeling included was a case of the "sour grapes."

"All the sudden, they knew they should have participated and they didn’t," Moi said. "So he should blame himself and not the BRA or members of the advisory committee."

Asked whether the alleged conversation between Lathrope and Upton could be chalked up to a miscommunication, Lathrope said, "All the meetings were public. ...We’ve had extensive coverage from the Back Bay Courant, South End News, South End Patch and the Globe. There’ve probably been at least 20 to 25 articles over the last two-and-a-half years. I also, before every advisory group meeting, emailed every president of all the neighborhood associations in the entire South End about this process so that even people from Ellis, Clarendon, Chester Square, could have come to this."

Upton still felt misled, though.

"Given that my neighborhood didn’t have an official representative, I felt like it was asking an awful lot to take time away from work to attend further meetings," Upton said of why he never attended meetings. "I had just gotten a new job teaching and it would have been a hardship for me to take time away from that new job to attend the lengthy series of meetings. It’s only now that I learned from my neighbors about the dramatic changes to zoning taking place just a few tens of feet away from our building. If someone told me that was what was on the table when I inquired, I suppose I would have made that hardship effort."

The Boston Redevlopment Authority will discuss proposed zoning changes to Article 64 on Dec. 15. If approved, the zoning amendments will go to the Boston Zoning Commission on Jan. 18 for a final vote. At the BZC meeting, residents will have their last chance to fight changes two and a half years in the making.

You can reach Kate at kate.southendnews@gmail.com. ’Like’ us on Facebook!.

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