Commentary | Development dream or nightmare? In the end, you get what you design

I have learned a lot of lessons in my half-century in Dorchester, both as a community activist and in my 42 years running organizations, and some of these lessons are relevant to the discussion of how development happens in Boston.

As the head of organizations, I learned that when there are problems achieving goals, it’s most often because of a design flaw; in other words, you get what you design.

As a community activist, I learned that community groups do not have much power to determine the developments in their neighborhoods. Those decisions are more related to the economy and various interests in the city. But they learn that they can say no and sometimes succeed in stopping developments.

Development here is usually on a parcel-by-parcel basis. Since land is both scarce and costly, developers want to maximize the density of their projects, which often violate our 58-year-old zoning code and result in projects going to the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) for decisions on what can be built. Most community groups will want to limit density, as parking, traffic, and access to services are typically problematic. They also find that providing the infrastructure to mitigate the added density is not effectively dealt with in our parcel-by-parcel process.

What results is a tug-of-war between developers and community groups. Developers will propose as much density as might fit on a parcel, assuming that in public hearings, they will need to cut back under pressure from community groups. The community groups understand that many projects are allowed by the ZBA at greater density than zoning will allow, and so they are left with deciding whether to fight or agree to a compromise density.

This makes our zoning code inoperative, with all power in the hands of the ZBA, which, in turn, is controlled by whoever is mayor. Mayors are elected with goals that cost money to achieve. However, in 1980, Massachusetts passed a law commonly known as “Prop 2 ½.” It limits a city’s overall property tax levy increase to 2.5 percent per year. This means that a city’s overall annual tax revenue can’t increase by more than 2.5 percent for the entire city unless there is a vote to “override” Prop 2 ½. It does not mean that your taxes can’t go up more than 2.5 percent, because property taxes are based on property value, which can rise by different percentages in different areas.

But 2.5 percent may not even cover annual collective bargaining wage increases for city workers, so a mayor who wants to have new programs and staff will either cut the city budget, get additional dollars from state and/or federal sources, or obtain additional revenue from new construction, which is exempt from Prop 2 ½. Given that, elected officials are typically very supportive of new development, because it increases the municipal budget beyond 2.5 percent.

The unfortunate result of all this is often a hostile environment in which the community reaches for the only power it has – to say no, which in some circles is called NIMBYism.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and Mayor Wu can learn something from what is happening in the area between Glovers’ Corner, Columbia Point, and Andrew Square, where 6 to 7 million square feet of new commercial space and 10,000 units of new housing are planned.

This will be a nightmare if the projects are done on the typical parcel-by-parcel basis. Imagine dealing with infrastructural needs like electricity and water and sewer services, fixing Morrissey Boulevard and K Circle, and determining needs for open space, parking, transportation, and schools on a piecemeal basis, with various projects that will cumulatively add upwards of 22,000 additional residents and 30,000 new commuters? And what about the spillover effect on other parts of the community?

But there is a glimmer of what could be: Back in 2007, Corcoran Jennison put together a billion-dollar plan for the former Expo Center on Columbia Point that included housing and commercial development, just as discussions began on replacing the offices and businesses next to JFK-UMass subway station with housing. The BPDA, then known as the BRA, convened a group representing government agencies, institutions, developers, and community representatives to create a “master plan” regarding what would make sense for the Columbia Point area.

The group produced a study that placed dense housing close to the subway station, new roadways between Morrissey Boulevard and the Southeast Expressway, and a gradual lowering of height as buildings got closer to the UMass traffic lights.

The plan was vetted through the community, but was never codified into zoning, and the Great Recession killed the Corcoran plan. Now, two current development proposals, Dorchester Bay City (on the former Expo Center land) and Center Court (between JFK-UMass and the former Boston Globe building) have created plans that are consistent with the master plan.

The problem is that they are a small part of the overall development expected in this area. There are myriad issues that are not being dealt with as the BPDA continues to operate parcel-by-parcel.

First, there are 10,000 units and 6 million to 7 million square feet of commercial space planned for the discreet area outlined above. It’s possible that the five-acre Campbell Resource Center, near Glover’s Corner and listed by the city as “underutilized,” will be added to the area to be redeveloped.

The entire area needs comprehensive planning that takes into consideration not only the impact of the sum total increase in housing, but also what kind of housing, i.e., are we creating housing for families or single people? Will we need daycare centers and schools? Further, what will the increase in population require for transportation, electricity, water and sewer and other infrastructure? Will planning include preservation of existing housing?

Transit-oriented development sounds great – if you have a public transit system that works well. We, alas, have a dysfunctional, untrustworthy system. At this point, acting like new residents will not need cars is foolish. Where will the cars go? Our elected officials have established a commission to look at what needs to happen to Morrissey Boulevard and K Circle, but what will be the impact on Dorchester Avenue, Pleasant Street, and Columbia Road, which are currently not part of that discussion? While all the developers talk about having bicycle garages for bike commuters, we don’t have roadways with bike lanes.

Mayor Wu and the BPDA have an opportunity to change the design of our planning process, develop a comprehensive plan for this huge development, gain community support for it, and initiate a citywide re-zoning process. The Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association has had numerous discussions regarding this process and has indicated that its major concern and objective is to participate in comprehensive planning involving all the impacted institutions, the BPDA, community groups, and businesses.

This process should start with a vision for how the community should evolve. Understanding that underutilized land like that in former industrial and commercial areas north of Glover’s Corner will likely be turned into housing, what is the vision for how it fits with the existing community? What will be the infrastructural dimensions, open space, city services, and other needs to accomplish that vision? How can you engage the community in creating and supporting that vision?

This mega-development’s reformed planning process could herald a new era for the BPDA and its relationship with Boston’s neighborhoods, and in turn, the neighborhoods’ relationships with developers. Let’s hope so.

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