Looking back at 2016 – Pausing to take stock at WalkUP Roslindale

We saw our share of highs and lows this year in advocating for the cause of a more walkable (as well as bikeable and transit-accessible) Roslindale. Here are my own personal five most important things that happened and as with last year, I would ask that any differences of opinion or emphasis be raised in the comments or in a follow up blog post:

  1. Arboretum Gateway Path Visioning and Initial Feasibility Analysis – Picking up a worthwhile idea that others in our neighborhood had already championed, we held a visioning session at the RCC in late March on the Arboretum Gateway Path. Turn out was high and enthusiastic and included the extremely able support of the students from Tufts University’s Urban and Environmental Policy program, who released their community vision report in May. We then partnered with LivableStreets Alliance on hiring Horsley Witten as the selected consultant to further the effort by doing an initial feasibility analysis, undertook a ride-walk of the proposed route in June and, in early December, we hosted a more focused potential route walk with LSA, HW, and the Arboretum. Surveying work on the portion of the proposed path within the MBTA property adjacent to the Needham Line was completed in late December. We hope to have the feasibility study available to share with our neighbors, the Arboretum, and city and state officials, in spring with a follow up meeting at the RCC.
  2. Responses to Pedestrian Fatalities – Our city witnessed a spate of pedestrian fatalities early in 2016, and Roslindale was not spared. Silvia Acosta was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver at Washington and Blue Ledge in January and then Johnette Sims was struck and killed by a drunk/hit-and-run driver at Canterbury and Morton in September. Although it was slow in coming and the topic of much frustration, the tragedy at Washington and Blue Ledge did finally result in improvements to that intersection several months after a site visit by Boston Vision Zero Task Force members. Not so with the fatality at Canterbury and Morton. Because Morton is a state highway at that location, there has, to my knowledge, been no site visit or any attempted response of any kind to improve the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists at that location. The city has no jurisdiction there and the state agency that does have jurisdiction, MassDOT, has not taken any action.
  3. Ulrich Bike Corral – After what seemed like an interminable delay, the Ulrich Bike Corral was finally installed at Corinth and Cohasset in early June. Many WUR folks played a role in working with RVMS to bring the corral to fruition, especially including Sarah Kurpiel Lee, who was instrumental in the final push with city staff and elected officials. Special thanks are also due to the owners of Fornax – Chris and Kim Fallon – for taking on maintenance and care of the corral along with the parklet. We are hoping to be able to install some improved directional and identification signs for the corral this spring.
  4. Roslindale Village Walkable Film Series – With a huge lift from Kevin Tobin, son of Greg, we hosted a rotating film series in and around the village that focused on urban and social issues, including battling disinvestment in the Dudley Triangle, struggling against the 1970s arson wave in the Fenway, and issues concerning gun control in our country. We are hoping to have another set of dates and films of more general interest this year as well.
  5. Vision Zero Rally for Safer Streets – There is no question that the city, despite adopting Vision Zero in early 2015 and producing what seemed like an achievable action plan in December of 2015, moved far more slowly than had been expected in making real progress on improving the safety of our streets for all users – especially people on foot and on bicycles. The major advocacy groups involved in Vision Zero — WalkBoston, LSA, Boston Cyclists Union, and MassBike — felt compelled by the lack of access to hold a rally on City Hall Plaza in late September. I was happy to attend as WUR’s representative (we also signed on as co-sponsors) and focused on implementing Rapid Response and the Neighborhood Slow Streets components of the Action Plan. My comments especially urged that NSS be implemented city-wide in 3 years — currently policy calls for 2 areas per year and given the size of the areas, likely several decades to complete. Despite immense popularity among local residents in the proposed areas, NSS remains a dead letter. Plans that were supposed finalized in the late fall with a first phase done before year-end have come to exactly nothing on the ground. We will need to push, and push hard, for the city to move more quickly and do the right thing faster. Perhaps the imminent reset of the city’s default speed limit from 25 mph to 30 mph will help break the logjam.

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.

Follow up on 874-878 South Street — Installment 1 — Pre-filing community meeting

Summary

Monday’s initial pre-filing community meeting on this proposed project — as yet unnamed — is now in the books. LANA board members observed more than once that the turnout was much heavier than is typical for their summer meetings. Almost everyone (other than the LANA board and a further exception that I will discuss below) was there for this project, expressing responses ranging from approval to rejection and qualifying questions/statements in between. Renderings of the project as presented at the meeting are not available electronically. If they do become available, I will update this post.

Generally speaking, if done right, this is the right kind of project for this location and should win support from those connected with WalkUP Roslindale. It is an easy walk from the site to the Roslindale Village commuter rail station and the square with its super market/bakeries/specialty food stores/restaurants, etc., and excellent bus connections into the Orange Line at Forest Hills. After several decades of decline or stasis, Boston’s population is growing again and we need more housing units to accomodate those who want to come here. We should welcome this opportunity to both do our part for our city and to bring more people close to the center of our community and support our main business district. This is not to say that there are concerns here — they are discussed below. But my own strong inclination is to support this proposal and encourage its improvement through the upcoming small project review/zoning relief process.

The Project as Proposed

Boiled down to basics:

  • Project site is located in the LC (Local Convenience) subdistrict of the Roslindale Neighborhood District (Article 67 of the Boston Zoning Code)
  • Demolition of the existing 4 storefronts and 2-family residential at the rear
  • All existing tenants (commercial and residential) are at-will/month-to-month
  • 15 off-street parking spaces at the ground/first story level
  • 15 residential condominium units on 3 levels above (all units are 2BR/2BA, approx. 1000 square feet (SF) in area)
  • Vehicular access would be over the existing curb cut and along the existing driveway from South Street at Walter Street
  • There would be no commercial space in the project as proposed
  • Two units would be required to be affordable per the city’s inclusionary zoning policy
  • Project will undergo Boston Redevelopoment Authority (BRA) Small Project Review (for projects 15 units or more but not considered a large project — entails design review of the project)
  • Variances required from the Boston Board of Appeal (per my notes) for this proposal are for Floor Area Ratio (FAR) (ratio of building size to lot area) (approx. 2.5 vs. 0.5 allowed), building height and stories (40’8″ vs. 35′ and 4 vs. 2 1/2), side yard width (5′ v. 10′ (abutting residential subdistrict width of 10′ applies)), and parking spaces per unit (1 per unit as opposed to 2 per unit for market rate and 1.5 per unit for affordable in a project of this size)

Concerns Raised

A fairly typical range of concerns was raised at the meeting, including urban design/architectural style (flat roof, flat front, not much detailing shown), height and bulk of the structure, affordability of the market rate units and whether additional affordable units can be provided beyond the two required, potential parking impacts (raised principally by those who appeared opposed to the project, with the assertion being that despite the transit-oriented and walkable location, there would be more than 1 car per unit, so the overflow parking would have to occur on on-street parking spaces that are perceived to be scarce; there was disagreement with this perception from a number of speakers at the meeting), and how much support there was for non-auto modes of travel (e.g., bicycle parking).  I personally raised the issue of the proposed elimination of commercial space at this location, but got almost no support in the room and a response from the developer/property owner that commercial really doesn’t work at this location (I acknowledge it has been limping along for the entire time I’ve lived here, though I think a single storefront or perhaps even a live/work unit or two should still be considered).

An additional concern raised in opposition to the project was that the LC zoning from which so many variances would be required is part of a neighborhood-wide Roslindale strategic planning/rezoning effort that was completed in 2007. Accordingly, to paraphrase how the argument went, there should be no deviating from that zoning because it reflects the neighborhood’s established preference, which was, it is said, to (1) preserve the existing density and character of this LC subdistrict and, more importantly, the surrounding 2F-5000 (“Two Family-5000 Square Feet”) residential subdistrict, and (2) channel development like this project to the commercial district in Roslindale Square. This specific point was raised from the outset by Wayne Beitler during the LANA Board’s Q&A and then by Carter Wilkie in the open discussion. This is not surprising, since both Wayne and Carter were members of the advisory committee that worked with the BRA on the rezoning a decade ago. While I appreciate the hard work they did on that committee and what they have both done generally to make Roslindale a better place, it is time we had a frank discussion about what our current zoning does and does not do, and how it needs to change for the better through the upcoming Imagine Boston 2030 planning process.

The Fundamental Disconnect of Our Current Zoning

Focusing first on the 2F-5000 residential subdistrict in which all of the Longfellow Area except the LC subdistrict has been zoned, it is critical to realize that “2F-5000” is itself a misnomer. When you look at the dimensional table for this subdistrict under Article 67 (the Roslindale Neighborhood Article), it’s actually a minimum of 5000 square feet (SF) in lot size for the first dwelling unit, and then a further 3000 SF for the second unit. So, it’s really a “1F-5000/2F-8000” zone. Now, consider for a moment that the most common lot size in the neighborhood is actually closer to 4500-4800 SF in area. For example, the lot for my single-family house is 4600 SF in area, and the lot sizes for the existing 2 families on my street are 4900 SF, 4340 SF, 5150 SF, and 4600 SF. In other words, the zoning that was adopted in 2007 means the majority of us are non-conforming at the most basic level.

This is not insignificant since any infill development (think of the scattered “double-lots,” many of which don’t meet the 5000 SF threshold) would have to meet this ill-fitting standard, and non-conformity applies also to additional dimensional aspects of the typical developed lot in the neighborhood, such as side yard widths (required to be 10 feet on both sides for detached structures – my house and every house on my block has at least one side yard that is narrower than 10 feet – most houses in the subdistrict do), rear yard setbacks, FAR, you pretty much name it. In addition, the parking requirement is 2 off-street spaces per unit throughout the entire Roslindale district (not just the 2F-5000 zone), with only limited exceptions right in Roslindale Square and for affordable units. I have a single space on my lot. Several of my neighbors have 1 space or no spaces at all. Overall, then, the zoning for our neighborhood, ostensibly meant to “preserve” us, actually treats us, with few exceptions, as legally not within the vision of what the neighborhood “should” be. In practice, this means that the existing zoning requires almost any change in the neighborhood’s built environment to go through the zoning relief process.

An object lesson in exactly this issue was in fact given at Monday night’s meeting. The first item on the agenda was a single-family home owner on Walter Street who was before LANA to seek support (or at least non-opposition) for his proposal to add a dormer to the upper story of his house to allow for a second full bathroom. He needed relief because the existing house, which appeared to be similar to almost every other house in the Longfellow Area, is non-conforming and the dormer would exacerbate that non-conformity. Thankfully for him, he appears to get along well enough with his immediate neighbors that this small change is not an issue. But the question has to be asked as to what kind of land use regulatory system would routinely require this level of process for such a small change?

The same mismatch of the current zoning with existing use and development, let alone what we might want, occurs in the LC subdistrict in which the South Street project is proposed to be located. The most obvious mismatch is the 0.5 FAR, with which I suspect none of the properties currently comply and which, if it were really to be complied with, represents a fundamentally dispersed, low-density suburban vision for this area. Furthermore, if the saving proposition of the rezoning was supposed to be that Roslindale Square was rezoned to accept more development, that didn’t actually happen. The two projects that have been done – the 3-story commercial building that replaced the old abandoned gas station, and the substation/funeral home redevelopment – both required zoning relief in the form of variances. In other words, the zoning for the square was so good that it had to be varied from to do two projects that the community wanted. Should they also have been told that the zoning was relatively new and they would have to live with it?

To summarize, we have what amounts to “zoning by variance” and it has been quite effective at slowing the pace of change. That may have worked in a period when Boston’s population was declining or remaining flat. It does not and cannot work when population is increasing, as it is today and appears poised to do for the foreseeable future. This is why the Mayor’s housing plan is so important to support and why Imagine Boston 2030, the citywide planning process that is just now getting going, is to important. We can no longer afford to treat any part of Roslindale as totally off limits to change, as if there were a growth boundary around the square and that is it. The square is great, but it can be better for everyone, and it won’t be better unless we welcome new neighbors within walking distance of its amenities.

What comes next?

I would expect that the developer/owner comes back to a further pre-filing meeting, whether it’s before LANA again or in a stand-alone format. If they’re willing to do that and show they’re listening by making improvements to their proposal, that would go a long way toward securing the support they’ll need. If they don’t, they’ll still be coming back to the neighborhood for their small project/zoning relief public meeting(s) and we will see what they’ve heard and not heard. Beyond that, everyone connected with WalkUP Roslindale needs to pay as much attention as we can to the Imagine Boston 2030 process when it gets rolling. We can’t let the opportunity to break out of the “zoning by variance” bind pass us by.