City Hall puzzle: How to match up Bay City project with the 10-year-old Columbia Point master plan?

A rendering shows the proposed Dorchester Bay City development from the vantage point of Dorchester Bay. Accordia Parnters/ARES image

City planners last week held an online discussion about how a 10-year-old master plan for Columbia Point will— and won’t— inform their ongoing review of the massive, 34-acre Dorchester Bay City project on the Columbia Point peninsula.

The Nov. 10 forum— hosted by the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA)—was one of two held in the last week to prepare for what is expected to be a series of public meetings for the Bay City project that will start after Thanksgiving.

The current proposal calls for the former Bayside Expo Center site and adjacent parcels along both sides of Mount Vernon Street to be transformed into an expansive mixed-use community over the next decade. If built as envisioned, the project will add 5.9 million square feet of new office and retail space and 1,740 units of housing to the Columbia Point landscape , according to the latest plans.

How city planners will use existing tools to review and approve the existing plans for Dorchester Bay City was the main topic of conversation in last week’s meeting. The master plan document was published in 2011, when the late Thomas M. Menino was mayor and the city’s planning agency was called the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). It was meant to be a guide for the reviewing of developments like Bay City In the intervening years, but, city officials acknowledge, the document is now more than a bit dated.

The master plan envisioned a “vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood,” a main street connecting Mount Vernon Street to the Dorchester Harborwalk, dense, elevated construction toward the western end of the development, an alignment of new streets to Harbor Point, and new public spaces.

“Not a lot of this vision has been realized,” said Ted Schwartzberg, one of four BPDA planners who spoke during the meeting. “There was a need for a plan.” Now, he added, “a lot of the conditions have changed.”

Schwartzberg ran through a slide presentation that sought to explain the challenges and priorities for the Columbia Point neighborhood and the Dorchester Bay City Proposal, including the antiquated JFK-UMass Station, enhancing neighborhood connectivity, and aligning the community with the ambitious goals put forward by the city’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan.

Additionally, he noted, BPDA officials have asked for the Dorchester Bay City proposal to incorporate greater access to affordable housing and plans for climate resiliency.

Another important dynamic that has emerged in the ten years since the master plan was published has been the growing awareness about climate change and how that will impact Dorchester’s coastline and the Columbia Point peninsula in particular.

“Climate resilience is not addressed in any significant way in the Columbia Point Master Plan,” said Schwartzberg. “At 40 inches of sea-level rise—expected in the 2070s—a significant part of Columbia Point is expected to be flooded. There’s also an opportunity. The Bay City Project could plug a major point of water infiltration into the neighborhood from the harbor.”

He added that the plans to re-design Moakley Park, Day Boulevard, and Morrissey Boulevard ‚ which may include a berm to protect against sea-level rise, also have to be factored in.

Another outdated premise in the master plan, Schwartzberg said, is the notion of “equitable development of housing.”
Whereas the 2011 document focused on providing housing for a “full range of income groups and household types,” updated scoping questions used by the agency now ask how “new income-restricted housing meets the needs of the community surrounding the proposal site, particularly with regard to target levels of affordability and unit sizes.”

At the time it was written, the master plan called for “diversity” in housing by offering options for families, seniors, and disabled persons.

The scoping questions also include the search for descriptions of how the proposal will “provide pathways to employment and ladders of economic opportunity for residents of adjacent communities.” Said Schwartzberg: “Another important part of the story for equitable outcomes is jobs and job access.”

“The master plan uses the term diversity,” Schwartzberg said. “If I were writing that document today, I would use the words ‘equitable access.’”

During the public comment section of the meeting, Evan George of Dorchester asked about the provisions for affordable housing in the Dorchester Bay City proposal, to which Schwartzberg responded, “Where the housing numbers land in the end is not a done deal yet. That will be the product of the series of public meetings that will begin after Thanksgiving.”

Markeisha Moore, also a Dorchester resident, asked where the numbers on affordable housing came from, saying, “If 20 percent [of income-restricted housing] is at 100 percent area median income (AMI) and 13 percent is at 70 percent, how much will be at market rate? That’s above the income that many people in this area are making.”

She later argued that “racial equity seems to be lost in all of these projects being approved across Dorchester. I have lived here all my life and raised my children here. This is my home! Rental units need to be truly affordable.”

Ebuña Marc, a transportation planner from Jackson Square, asked about the possibility of reducing parking spaces as a means of keeping rent down in the proposed development. He said that the Dorchester Bay City proposal has been “of specific interest because of how close it is to transit. It’s an opportunity to address the housing crisis.”

Chris Soule, a Dorchester resident, presented an opposing viewpoint, saying, “Parking is paramount. People who live here have cars. They have to put their cars somewhere. Having no garage does not mean that they’ll have less traffic.”

Lori Hurlebaus of Dorchester urged BPDA officials to “not rush through a series of meetings in December” on the Bay City plans. In particular, she said, she hoped to see questions about housing affordability answered.

“How are we going to measure what contributes to displacement?” she asked. “What strategies are we going to deploy to prevent that? We need an anti-displacement plan that’s part of it. The city needs to step up on what you’re asking developers to come back with. Please don’t rush this process. We need to see more about jobs – specifics.” The alternative, she added, “is just not going to fly in the community.”

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