Thinking about the proposed project at 100 Weld and Boston’s inclusionary development policy

The former Weld American gas/service station at the corner of Weld and Centre may be zoned within the West Roxbury Neighborhood District, but by virtually any other known geographic listing it’s in Roslindale. After a prior redevelopment proposal failed a few years ago, it looks like the current proposal – now dubbed “100 Weld” and including 17 condominium units and a Centre Street-facing exercise/office space for residents with 26 accessory off-street parking spaces – is going to thread the needle and be that rare exception to the general rule that nothing worth doing is ever done under the Boston Zoning Code without needing zoning relief (i.e., either variances or, at the very least, a conditional use permit). This is not to say that the proposed development program and design don’t leave a few things to be desired — they do, and WalkUP Roslindale intends to submit a written comment letter about them to the BRA by the September 10 deadline. Among other things, I predict we’ll focus on the missed opportunity for retail to encourage vitality at this location, the need for well-designed and landscaped frontages on Weld and Centre, how the time has ever more obviously come to have a real discussion about the impact that required off-street parking has on the cost and shape of new development, and how this intersection and the mixed residential/commercial node here could use streetscape/motorway improvements beyond just at this project’s front door onto Centre. Overall, though, the project deserves to go forward. The neighborhhood has lived with this vacant parcel long enough.

Another issue that this project raises is the fundamental inadequacy of the city’s inclusionary development policy (IDP). This is the policy adopted over a decade ago by mayoral executive order under which the city requires residential projects of 10 units or more that require zoning relief (variances or conditional use permit) to set aside a number of units equal to 15% of the market rate units for households earning within a set series of ranges related to area median income, depending on whether a particular project is rental or homeownership, with a buyout option. I’ve italicized “that require zoning relief” because that’s where the rub comes on 100 Weld and where the city is going to need to figure out a new way forward. 100 Weld had a couple of pre-filing meetings in the spring at which alternative schemes were presented for a few more units that would have required variances and thus a few affordable units. Whatever the reason, the developer has elected to reduce the number of units and thus has come forward with a scheme that can be done as-of-right, with no zoning relief. As a result, the project no longer triggers the IDP and so there will be no affordable units in this project.

Going forward, there clearly seems to be a need to rethink the IDP and potentially make it apply to all projects with a minimum number of residential units, regardless of whether they require zoning relief. One would fully expect this to be part of the ImagineBoston process. But the pace of the current boom argues for putting in an interim policy that plugs this gap, especially if the city’s ultimate intent with the planning process is to right-size our zoning code for the task ahead of us and make a much greater share of worthwhile projects able to proceed without zoning relief. To be continued.

Exactly

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This photo was taken yesterday at the Roslindale Farmers Market. I assume RVMS gathered the information and made the display. Well done, guys! Exactly the kind of thinking about the area that’s needed. Really makes the argument about how much is within very short walking distance. Our focus should be on finding ways for those steps to be easier and safer to make, increasing the number of places you can get to by walking, and supporting old and new neighbors who want to take those steps!

(Revised slightly after initial posting.)

Living on Earth and Complete Streets in Boston

Cambridge Street Bridge

Cambridge Street Bridge with cycle track

Excellent Living on Earth piece this week about the “Complete Streets” movement, focused on Cambridge Street in Allston. The segment features an interview with then-deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, Stefanie Seskin, now Boston’s Director of Active Transportation. Also interviewed is Vineet GuptaBoston Transportation Department head of policy and planning.

It’s been nearly 75 years since World War II ended, yet much transportation planning is still based on that obsolete paradigm. The Living on Earth piece concludes on a hopeful note that the pace of change is picking up:

SESKIN: Post World War II, we embarked in the United States and in many other countries, on a massive infrastructure investment to move goods really across the country. And that had a lot of really important and good changes to the way that we built our roads in terms of safety when you’re travelling at high speeds, when you’re thinking about trucks and how they move.

LUCAS: But Seskin says while wide lanes make highways and other high-speed roads safer for traffic using them, they were never meant for cities and town centers. And yet city streets were built the same way as those high-speed roads. Vineet Gupta of Boston’s Transportation Department says that post-war engineering mentality explains why Cambridge Street is so bad for pedestrians today.

GUPTA: In those days, all they cared about was moving traffic and making traffic flow more efficient, and really not focusing on what cities really are, and what makes them livable.

LUCAS: That’s where people-oriented complete streets are different.And the idea has been gaining traction around the country.The National Complete Streets Coalition says that the number of places with complete street policies leaped from 86 in 2008 to 610 last year. Stephanie Seskin has noticed.

We haven’t seen much of this progress yet in Roslindale. It’s our job to push both elected and appointed officials to bring Complete Streets to our neighborhood sooner rather than later. We should be leading rather than trailing.

Governor Baker’s official response on Casey Arborway looks like the final word

And the manner of the response could bode well for how our commonwealth’s new administration views major projects in urban areas

By necessity, WalkUP Roslindale’s focus is primarily on Roslindale Square and its immediate vicinity. But what is now happening with Casey Arborway — the MassDOT project currently underway to demolish the old Route 203/Casey Overpass at Forest Hills and replace it with a network of at-grade streets — also matters a lot. There is no denying that the construction has made the area more difficult to navigate in the short term: the area right now is a mix of permanent and temporary roadways and paths and demolition of the old overpass is ongoing. Ultimately, once completed, Casey Arborway promises a more connected, accessible, and livable Forest Hills for everyone.

For those who have followed the project for the last several years as it wound its way through the public process, the most regrettable outcome has been the bitter split among many politically active players in Jamaica Plain over the wisdom of MassDOT’s decision to go with the at-grade network over reconstructing or replacing the overpass. Since the decision was originally announced in March 2012, Bridging Forest Hills, the anti-at-grade group, has managed to hold itself together even as the project has moved forward through design, final approvals, selection of the contractor, and even commencement of construction this spring. The last move the group made was a petition and direct appeal this spring to Governor Baker to halt the project and consider a new direction. Putting aside the practicalities of doing that at this late stage, we all know stranger things have happened and so those on both sides of the issue were still waiting with some interest to see how the governor would respond.

And so he now has. The text of the email from the governor’s office was recently posted at BFH’s website and it does indeed look like the final word. In a brief but substantive response worth reading in full, his deputy chief of staff touches principally on the level of inclusion and robustness of the public process and the way the project evolved over time. In terms of looking forward and thinking about how MassDOT will evaluate their urban projects in the future (such as the Allston Interchange/Beacon Yards project, about which Renee Loth wrote in today’s Globe), the key passage for me is this:

The at-grade option was advanced because it ranked the highest for all forms of mobility, livability, and long term maintenance costs.

Those 3 criteria — mobility across modes, livability, and long-term maintenance costs — are pretty good measures if you’re looking to boil things down. For way too long we allowed one of those criteria and one mode within it to control decision-making. The Casey Arborway represents a new direction that I hope is replicated more often at all levels of government.

South @ Walter Clearly Heating Up — Time to consider Live/Work Units?

Add another ingredient to the mix at what is becoming a hot corner: Green T Cafe just announced they are moving into the former Christos Market space on the corner of Walter and South streets. Some limited activity had been noticeable a few weeks back, but over the past weekend a dumpster materialized (was quickly filled and already replaced) and work appeared to be starting in earnest. The news popped up on the LANA NextDoor group as well as the Keep Roslindale Quirky facebook page, and on Green T’s own website/facebook page. Timing sounds like this fall/winter. This is a big change – the location has been vacant for several years and we have been in desperate need for a neighborhood coffee shop for almost as long.

Green T’s impending arrival signals that there is retail potential at this corner. Further to the recent post about the proposed residential development across South Street, I would suggest again that there is a meaningful basis for more commercial activity at this corner (again, just down the street from where I have lived for 15 years), not less. And one way that the South Street developer might straddle the fence would be to include one or two live/work units on the ground floor street frontage of the building. I suspect, without researching the question, that live/work units at that location (and probably almost everywhere else in Boston) would require a variance from the existing zoning. But the advantages in affordability, flexibility of use and allowing the building to evolve with changing circumstances would be significant. Something to consider here and possibly elsewhere in Roslindale where retail might work but hasn’t been proven yet or has been dormant for an extended period.