Bayside developers go public with site plans

The developer of a vast new shopping and rental-apartment complex on the 29-acre site of the Bayside Expo Center submitted a flurry of documents to city planners on June 30, opening the door for public comment that could influence the project. The redevelopment effort includes hundreds of shops, rental apartments and parking lots where the Columbia Point exposition hall now stands.

The submission to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) was a surprise to some, who expected the process to begin later in the fall, based on Corcoran Jenison Companies presentations to several civic associations earlier this year. It has also raised questions about timing with the Columbia Point Master Plan Task Force, which has been appointed by city officials to create new zoning and guidelines for density, transportation improvements and other factors on the entire peninsula.

"I'm not focused on that right now, quite frankly," said chair of the task force Don Walsh when asked how he felt about the plan for 'Bayside.' "I think they are applying under the current zoning requirements, for whatever reason, and I'm chairing a group that is creating a new zoning plan."

According to both the BRA and Corcoran Jennison execs, the company has waited patiently to file its plans - first unveiled to the public in broad strokes last summer - while the master plan process began. Now the company is pointing to the worsening economy as a reason to get underway, according to Columbia Point project manager Tad Read of the BRA.

The submission of the plan kick-starts the Boston Redevelopment Authority's Article 80 Large Project Review process, the primary way in which the public and the city's team of planners and analysts are allowed to pour over and recommend changes to large-scale development proposals. The only scheduled public meeting for this first phase of the project's review is this Monday, July 21, 6 p.m. in the Executive Conference Center under the Bayside Office Center at 150 Mt. Vernon St.

Mayor Thomas Menino has also invited each member of the Columbia Point task force to also join the Impact Advisory Group that would review the project separately.

A second and possibly final public comment phase for Bayside will begin after Corcoran Jennison re-submits the plan after taking the public's comments into account, as well as those from a myriad of state and city agencies that will be affected by the new shopping and residential center.

From the PNF, or Project Notification Form, as the submission is called, and public comments, the BRA determines the "scoping" of the project, or what the developer must study and analyze further. It is also a time when civic groups typically comment on the basics of the proposed development, according to BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker. But at any time, the community could ask for more community meetings, more public outreach or more time to review.

"Our plan is for it to be reviewed concurrently with the plan that's taking place," she said. "We wanted the community to see the plan to see what their initial thoughts were."

For those who had a chance to peruse Bayside's PNF - which includes a 311-page book describing the plan and well over a thousand pages of appendices full of traffic, pedestrian, shadow, wind and other studies - there were many potential points of concern.

Mitigations to address an increase in traffic alter only five intersections in the area, three of which are direct entrances to Bayside. The other two, prohibiting left turns out of "the chute" (Day Boulevard Extension) and improving signal-timing at the intersection marking the main entrance to the UMass-Boston campus, would do little to reduce congestion at what has become the main focus of the Columbia Point's task force, Kosciuszko Circle.

Improvements to the circle are impeded by the fact that it is under state jurisdiction and all or part of it is designated a historic landmark, but task force members have been adamant that it must be improved before more traffic is brought to the area.

Pedestrian improvements are similarly limited, addressing only the path from the JFK/UMass T Station to the entrance of the new development. The proposal calls for narrowing turning radii, shortening crossing distances and widening sidewalks to make the route more welcoming to those on foot.

The plan does not address pedestrian access from Columbia Road, Day Boulevard, along Morrissey Boulevard South of the proposed development, or from the west side of the MBTA station that has often been criticized for it's dark and unwelcoming nature. The PNF values the proposed traffic and pedestrian improvements at $1.4 million.

Walsh said he personally would rather focus on traffic solutions for a "full build" of all the proposed projects on the point, including a proposal for several properties next to the JFK/UMass T Station that is waiting in the wings and UMass-Boston's plans for new academic buildings and student dorms. Corcoran is also in ongoing negotiations to acquire the site that Sovereign Bank now occupies on Mt. Vernon St. across from Bayside, according to the PNF.

"Let's fix it once rather than Mickey Mouse it three times," Walsh said. "Then again, I understand Corcoran Jennison's position that they're not responsible for all the others with projects on the point. They've taken the narrow view, the one-project view of what has to happen and I think the Columbia Point Master Plan is taking the wider view of what should happen."

On the environmental front, Corcoran Jennison's plan calls for including measures like increased insulation, Energy Star appliances, and a low-impact storm-water drainage design, but declares other techniques such as green roofs, on-site renewable energy generation and water-conserving fixtures such as sinks and toilets as "inappropriate to project type."

As to affordable housing, the plan calls only for meeting the city's guidelines, whereas residents and institutional leaders on Harbor Point are united in favor of a higher percentage than the 13 percent of affordable units required by the BRA. They are also interested in seeing apartments with more than 2-bedrooms, currently the maximum.

Monday's meeting promises to be an interesting one for the civically active.

"I'm looking forward to having an opportunity to give some feedback on the plans and address some of the deficiencies that are most likely there," said Michael Gordy, a landscape architect and local civic activist on the task force and IAG for the development. "In general, I hope to point out some ways of getting the most potential out of one of the best sites in Boston."