Columbia Pt. plan revised; shorter buildings, more open space

Proposed heights for development in Columbia Point have been reduced and open green space has been increased by a half-acre under a revised master plan that the city’s planning agency will eventually use as a blueprint for development in the area.

The final plan, the product of a two-year effort by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and a mayoral-appointed task force of local residents, is meant to function as a guideline for developers looking at the area and aimed at reconnecting Columbia Point, cut off from the rest of Dorchester because of the expressway, to Savin Hill.

Under the plan, which is expected to go before the BRA’s board for a vote in the fall, a redeveloped Columbia Point would be a 24-hour-a-day neighborhood, with 4,300 additional residential units, and by extension, 8,600 new residents.

“This is about creating a day and evening environment,” said Tad Read, one of the BRA’s planners who worked with the task force. That means residents will be able to shop and eat at retail stores or cafes that currently don’t exist, he said.

Don Walsh, a Savin Hill resident who heads the task force, said he hoped it would be similar to Boston’s South End neighborhood, with its array of shops and cafes, amid the backdrop of the Prudential Center.

BRA officials, who made the revisions in response to public comment, also caution the development isn’t expected to happen at the same time. Instead, the movement is likely to be incremental. Revisions to the plan were released to a small crowd of residents and task force members at Boston College High School last week.

The area houses a number of local institutions, including Sovereign Bank, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, the Massachusetts State Archives, Corcoran Jennison Companies, the Boston Globe, Boston College High School, the Bayside Expo Center, and the UMass-Boston campus.

Synergy, the owner of the property Shaw’s sits on, is also looking to develop several of its parcels, including the former WB56 television station.

The plan comes as UMass-Boston embarks on an ambitious expansion plan, building a center dedicated to the study of the U.S. Senate and focused on the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, an integrated sciences complex, new academic buildings, and eventually, dorms.

Last week’s meeting of the task force was its first in months, largely due to UMass-Boston’s surprise purchase of the former Bayside Expo Center earlier this year. UMass officials say that in the short term, the space will be used for parking while construction is underway.

The tallest building in the area – a tower that could be built over the JFK/UMass MBTA station should a developer purchase the so-called “air rights” – would now be 17 stories, instead of the originally proposed 22 stories, according to BRA officials.

Under the revisions, a potential building next door would be 16 stories instead of the original 19 stories, and the building next to that would be between 5 to 11 stories instead of 9 to 13 stories.
But some local residents said the proposal for 17 stories is still too high and would ruin the character of the neighborhood.

“Downtown Boston is literally being planned for our backyards,” Savin Hill resident Doreen Miller said in an email to neighborhood locals and others. “Is that something you want?”

She and others have also panned the increase in density for the neighborhood, with a potential 8,600 additional residents.

City Councillor Maureen Feeney, whose district includes parts of the area, said the new stories were a “substantial decrease.”

“I think it was good that they’ve made some adjustments to that. It’s difficult to even think about the heights that are proposed,” Feeney said. “But on the other hand, they definitely have made strides to move each of the buildings down and I think they’ve at least demonstrated that they listened to what people tried to say.”

BRA officials and members of the task force say the height is needed in order to entice developers into bringing about improvements that the city doesn’t have the money to pay for. That includes a new intersection at Morrissey Boulevard, which would cost $1.5 million. A new street connecting Morrissey Boulevard to Mt. Vernon St. would cost $2.1 million, according to the BRA. New parks and open space would cost $50 million.

A new street grid, with an increase in streets criss-crossing Mt. Vernon St., would also help alleviate traffic congestion, according to the plan.

The plan also redesigns Morrissey Boulevard by narrowing the width of travel lanes and the addition of crosswalks and bicycle paths, and adds a half-acre of open space to the originally planned 11 acres.

A proposed one way street – an extension of Wave Avenue – from Savin Hill to the Boston Globe property, should the newspaper one day leave its Morrissey Boulevard headquarters, would remain subject to a traffic study. BRA officials also raised the possibility of putting restrictions during peak traffic hours, to minimize vehicles cutting through the area during rush hour.

Residents, including former Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association president Paul Nutting, complained that traffic will still increase, and they don’t need a traffic study to tell them that.

Maureen McQuillen, head of the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association, said the group won’t be voting on the plan until after the summer. She said she sees the pros and cons of the proposed master plan, but was interested in hearing from other members of the civic group.

Feeney also noted that little in the master plan is set in stone.

“And as we know, as we go to the board of appeal every single week, plans have amendments and changes,” she said.