EAST BOSTON : THE ZONING RIDDLE

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^ my working group at the BPDA zoning revision meeting

We attended Wednesday night’s Zoning Plan meeting, at East Boston Social Centers, hosted by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA). Since early in the summer, the BPDA has moved to engage as many East Boston residents as it can in forming a comprehensive revision of the City’s Zoning Code. Wednesday’s meeting was the third such.

Before I report on the Wednesday meeting, it ,might be helpful to offer links to the actual Zoning Code and to the State’s Zoning Law under which a City is empowered to establish zoning regulations:

The current zoning code, and zoning maps illustrative, can be read and viewed here : http://www.bostonplans.org/zoning/zoning-code-maps-old

The State’s Zoning Law, MGL c. 40A, can be read here : https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleVII/Chapter40A

I want to call your attention in particular to MGL c. 40A section 10, “Variances,” in which the criteria for granting are made explicit as well as the public policy underlining them: https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleVII/Chapter40A/Section10

OK then. having provided you the law, let’s look at Wednesday’s meeting as well as the enormous challenges confronting a Zoning revision:

Jay Ruggiero, of Eastie’s well-regarded funeral home family, is now the BPDA’s Director of Community Outreach. Jay emcee’d the meeting. Information pamphlets were handed out as well as papers for nominating people to a 25-person “Advisory Group” that, if all goes well, will meet twice a month to work out a new zoning plan for East Boston. (I nominated three : Mike Russo, Mike Othmer, and Jules Burrell — wanting to name people who, although activist, aren’t already loaded with Eastie meetings and group commitments.) Who the City will actually pick, is anybody’s guess.

These preliminaries handled, the meeting attendees — about 60 people — were split up into six working groups each at a separate conference table. I sat with Frank DelMuto’s group. Frank is a respected Eastie builder who lives in the Salesians-St. Mary’s section and actively participates in harbor View Neighborhood Association meetings. Mike and Christy Dennis joined us as did Jared from the BPDA and several well-informed residents whom I had not met — a good thing; one always wants to see the rolls of local activism attracting new recruits.

The discussion at our table and at the others — including groups led by Dayna Antenucci (Orient Heights), Debra Cave (Eagle Hill). Joanne Pomodoro (Orient Heights), Meg Grady (Eagle Hill), Maureen White (Jeffries Point) — were tasked with identifying zoning priorities. These we all know well enough: density issues, height of buildings, traffic concerns, design hurdles, impact on infrastructure. People also cited the remarkable eased with which zoning variances are granted. Much was said about stiffening the obstacles to variance, including granting more authority to neighborhood groups overseeing the BPDA’s required “public comment hearing.” All of us are familiar with these public comment hearings. Neighborhood association activists command them, which means that development proposals requiring many variances are almost always overwhelmingly voted down.

Not everyone likes how these hearings turn out. This we all know :

Development advocates dislike how public comment hearings are run. They cite the need for greater residential density if limited-income families are to remain in a neighborhood where rents are sky high-ing. Developers  cite the right of property owners to use their properties. Owners who have, in many cases, owned for decades properties bought for very little back in the day, when no one wanted most East Boston homes, feel entitled now to cash in a sale price as big as a lottery winner.  Cashing out has presented Eastie with some of its currently most troubling proposals, including the Narrtow Gauge project, the huge 144 Addison Street envision, the hotel-sized proposals at 205 Maverick Street, 650 Saratoga Street, and Mt. Carmel Church on Gove Street. Nor are these the only disruptions that East Boston faces. According to the BPDA there are 58 variance requests on the Zoning Board of Appeals calendar. Most of these, if not all, seek to build five stories high, increase units from two or three to nine or more, and fill out lots almost to the lot line. Many involve insufficient off street parking.

Wednesday’s meeting achieved no solution to these challenges. Naming zoning priorities is fine, but the details of an actual ordinance revision remain out of reach. And then these riddles, for which no one, at least at  my table, was ready to offer a solution:

( 1 ) Why are zoning variances so easy to win at the Appeals Board ? The stated purpose of variance, as set forth in MGL c. 40A, section 10, is that a variance should confirm and support the zoning condition within which a variance is sought. Yet many, many variance grants — at least within my familiarity — grossly violate the zoning condition thus varied. How come this happens ?

( 2 ) How can neighborhood-changing development be curbed when investors can and do now pay far higher buy prices than any residential home buyer would be willing to pay, or able ? All the happy talk about devising a zoning revision based on neighborhood priorities flies out the window of a real estate and economic boom that is pricing the neighborhood into a completely different future in which ordinary income earners will have no place.

The vast majority of Eastie residents wants its neighborhood character to remain, to be enhanced, not devolved. The zoning law itself establishes neighborhood characteristics. All the good intentions in the world, however, not to mention the law’s precepts themselves, can stand against the plans of deeply pocketed investors and their huge constituencies of architects, contractors, builders, lawyers, consultants, and real estate agents, all of whom draw very comfortable incomes from work done in a development’s course. My own feeling is that all the BPDA meetings that mayor Walsh can ask for, and all the well intentioned “Advisory Group” participation, will amount only to a shrug and a good bye smile as the Boston economic boom transforms every close-in neighborhood of the City from its traditional working class character to the absolute opposite. Nor has the BPDA even addressed the Air BnB controversy : the tourist-ing of close-in Boston neighborhoods continues, and it’s not easy to see how it can be stopped without violating basic individual property rights that cannot in any circumstance be compromised.

It was, of course,. oh so different when Boston was a city that people wanted only to leave; when suburban life was the ideal and vast shopping malls on the Interstates were the trade destinations. Then — 40 years ago — one could readily live in the City on very little money, amid neighbors one had known since childhood surrounded by structures that never got rebuilt or even renovated. Do we want those days back ? Do we want to live on very little in an unchanging corner of a neighborhood that time ignores ? Maybe we do want it; but we aren’t going to get it. In a sense Ayanna Pressley was right to say “change can’t wait.” I make only one revision to her election slogan : in Boston change WILL NOT wait.

I think the BPDA knows this. I think the BPDA is trying to alleviate the anger we will all feel when — I hope I am wrong, but I doubt I am — we see, a few years from now, or by 2030, that all of our pride of neighborhood character was maintained in vain.

The zoning meetings continue. I will attend them.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

 

 

 

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