narrow gauge

MG2 of Quincy, one of Boston’s major developers of residential housing, has shocked the Jeffries Point neighborhood with a development proposal that cannot stand and will not stand. This proposal does have one benefit : it has turned Zoning Reform from legal esoterica to a first priority.

The above picture shows the proposal as presented : 99 units, 90 parking places, buildings 55 to 70 feet high. (The hulk-like structure between Maverick and Everett Streets looks especially monstrous.) It occupies four strips of land, long unused, that before 1940 belonged to the Boston, Revere & Lynn Railway right of way. That railway, rendered bankrupt by the rise of automobile use, followed the current Blue Line to its Wood Island station, then veered eastward onto land now belonging to Logan Airport, after which, at Maverick Street, it entered the Jeffries Point neighborhood; culminating in a  tunnel underneath Sumner and Webster Streets, from which it emerged to a ferry depot on the water side of Marginal Street. In 1940 the rail line ceased operation, and all the tracks, electric poles, and signage were removed. The land on which it ran was never used again. 40 years ago, according to deeds at the Suffolk Registry, its four “vacant parcels” were bought by Hugo Ascolillo, then of 192 Everett Street. (See Book 9048, Page 356, April 1978; grantors were Vincent A LoPresti and Sidney Boorstein, purchase price $ 4500.00.

At that time most of East Boston had not attracted investor interest in at least two generations. I’ve told how my Aunt Elizabeth, coming home to my Mom’s funeral in 1970, after living in Cleveland., Ohio since 1928, recognized every building and even every store. In the area you can find single family houses built after 1950, but very few.  Why Hugo Asoclillo bought these vacant lots, is anybody’s guess. Certainly he didn’t do anything with them.

In 1992 he created the Narrow Gauge Realty Trust but still didn’t do anything with lots that, although likely worth more than $ 4500, still fell far short of attraction to a home-builder. In any case, here we are, in 2018, and presumably that Trust is the seller in the current buy option which MG2, or a nominee, has reportedly entered into, to purchase these lots if the BPDA approves a proposal. Which is where things stand now.

Much money must be involved here. Buildable lots in the waterside parts of East Boston cost plenty. With three-family row houses asking $ 1.2 million and more, the potential rewards of MG2’s 99-unit offering run to the 50 millions or more. Hugo Ascolillo bought wisely. His $ 4500 purchase is probably worth two million — my guess, and maybe a  conservative one — to the beneficiaries of the trust he created. In no way do I fault the Ascolillo family for its good fortune: my objection is to the MG2 proposal. The Ascolillo beneficiaries will do just fine, and has every right to, assuming MG2 can commit to a proposal that does not rip apart the character pf the Jeffries Point neighborhood.

And now to the zoning issues, before I set forth my own Narrow gauge proposal:

Massachusetts zoning law, set forth in MGL c. 40A and 40B, gives cities and towns authority to create various zoning characteristics as they deem necessary and proper —


— and case law makes clear that if a zoning variance, from the applicable characteristic, is to be granted, it must carry out the purposes ascribed in the zoning characteristic. In other words, a variance must bolster the character of a zone, not detract from it, much less alter the character entirely.

The Narrow Gauge proposal requires several variances. It also overturns the very defined character of Jeffries Point. If the law of variances governs, no variance can legally be granted t.he MG2 proposal as it stands.

Doubtless MG2 will adjust its aspirations substantially. That’s what has happened with several other recent Jeffries Point development offerings. The area’s Neighborhood Association has vetoed many such, mostly by overwhelming votes. Developers simply seem not to grasp that residents of this very defined neighborhood aren’t going to approve its disruption.

How defined a neighborhood is Jeffries Point ? Go there, walk or drive around, take  along look at it all. It’s an area of brownstone row houses, wooden row houses,. and a few newly designed but similarly sized condo structures. It has a park similar to Louisburg Square. The majority of its residences were built 100 to 150 years ago. Al,most all have amenable back yards. The houses on Webster Street’s water side, and on Brigham and Marginal Street, have Harbor views to amaze you. The houses along most of Everett Street and half of Sumner Street are less imposing, but they share an easily recognizable, common character.

Jeffries Point epitomizes what the zoning law means by “characteristic.”

As I see it, there is no way that the City’s Zoning Board of Appeal can approve variances to enable the sort of proposal that MG2 has on offer. Sadly, the Board does approve, all over East Boston, variances for projects similarly derogative of neighborhood characteristics. Appealing these zoning decisions in Superior Court can easily require a $ 50,000 legal fee, maybe more. Few of us have one fifth of that. Thus zoning decisions that cannot stand, do stand. Which leads us to zoning law reform, a top priority for what Councillor Lydia Edwards, speaking for almost all, demand of a new East Boston Master Plan whose parameters will soon enough be presented for a City Council vote.

Zoning law reform will happen, because it must. We can’t continue to build ,more and more housing, in hopes that the law of supply and demand will force rents and house prices back to affordability. The situation reminds me of what cities felt about highways back in the 1930-1970 era : build more and bigger highways, and traffic will be absorbed. Instead, the more and bigger highways we built, the more traffic used them. Highway building made the traffic worse, not better. I’ve come to feel that the more housing we build in Boston, the more boom; the more boom, the more high-earning people Boston will attract, the higher that prices will go.

No one wants to see Boston’s prosperity boom fade away, but we cannot keep on the path we’re in. The only feasible method for stopping Boston’s boom from wiping out established neighborhoods, with their consensus quality of life, is to use zoning to protect them. Eventually, the Governor’s work-force housing plans, which foresee home building all along the West of Boston-Framingham-Worcester corridor, will ease the housing pressure on Boston land by extending the area in which businesses desire to locate. But that plan will take a decade or more to realize. Meanwhile, zoning reform offers a stop-gap remedy.

And now my suggestion for the Narrow Gauge lots :

On the two, quite large lots that run from Maverick Street to Sumner, build two or three unit condos similar to those recently erected on Geneva Street. On the lot between Sumner and Webster, build two such condos, one facing Sumner, one facing Webster. As for the fourth lot, that runs from Webster to Marginal, make it a dog park, if possible, with a walkway down to Marginal (the lot may not even be usable as a park given its steep slope)

The neighborhood might welcome such a proposal. What is wrong with building housing that a neighborhood can approve ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere





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