Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Between Foster Rock and a Hard Place

There's a hard issue that has been the source of much angst in the Brighton community since Boston College put forward their draft institutional master plan in February. The issue is covered in dangerous shards of broken glass, just like the top of Foster Rock.

At the forum on Monday night, three candidates for the Allston-Brighton District 9 City Council walked into the line of fire over this housing issue. Why? The potential support of the Portina Road Jewish Orthodox community -- and their friends -- lies on the line.

Boston College has proposed to put 70 -- now up to 90 -- beds of "graduate or seminarian housing" on the land next to the Foster Rock, a five-acre property across from the St. John's Seminary land proper, but nonetheless part of the 2004 land purchase from the Archdiocese of Boston. This property, at 188-192-196 Foster Street (where the large parcel is listed as 192), is currently classified under Article 51 of the zoning code as a Conservation Protection Subdistrict, but BC's 2006 IMPA put a BC master plan overlay allowing them to re-zone it under Article 80 of the zoning code. Three houses currently lie on one corner of the site; they would be razed to build the new housing.

Not very interesting. Yet.

The back side of the property abuts a series of houses on Portina Road, many of them owned by members of the Jewish Orthodox (Hasidic) community. This is a lovely road, full of large families and large numbers of children that can play in the street in the afternoon, early evening, and especially on Saturday. In fact, the children can make quite a scene on the Sabbath.

When they got wind in March of BC's proposal to build the housing, the Orthodox community was furious -- and started to get mobilized. This issue is far and away the biggest reason that Rabbi Rodkin and his congregants show up to neighborhood meetings on BC's institutional expansion. Needless to say, the Orthodox community opposes BC's proposal with the strongest language they can muster, worried that quiet "seminarian" housing could easily switch to noisier "graduate" students and then -- in the blink of an eye when no one is looking -- be converted to "undergraduate" housing. BRA officials have tried placating them, but no assurances of requiring master plan review before allowing change in the building occupancy seems to satisfy the Portina Road neighbors.

Simply put: the Orthodox community fears a loss of their very way of life by having their quiet, out-of-the-way one-way street turned into a higher-traffic thoroughfare -- and having students, of any kind, living within a stone's throw.

But wait, you say, there's no access to the property from the east, so BC's proposed housing on Foster Street shouldn't bring extra traffic to Portina Road (except for a bit of increased foot traffic). Last fall, however, somebody with heavy equipment removed the barricades and cleared the brush for a footpath along one side of BC's property, thereby opening up the undeveloped extension of Wiltshire Road. Adventurous drivers could now go directly between Portina Road and Foster Street. And some did. And the neighbors worried that their way of life really was about to change.

BC claimed they didn't open up the road, the city also denied it, and the missing barricade problem was in a logjam. A couple of gentleladies twisted arms, stepping past the office of then-District City Councilor Jerry McDermott to find assistance from At-Large Councilor Sam Yoon's office. Barricade returned, dirt road closed off again, the universe re-aligned.

But the problem of the proposed housing is still there. The broader community isn't quite sure where we stand on the issue: there are three nice houses c.1880s on one corner of the lot that ought not to be torn down in a neighborhood starving for single-family housing; BC's proposal already wisely avoids building on the Foster Rock itself; and maybe BC could be convinced to put a more positive development on the site, like faculty housing (which they seem to need, based on house purchases on Wade Street). I know; I led a community meeting in April which included this on the agenda.

Into this Orthodox-angst over BC's proposal walked the candidates during Monday's forum. As moderator, I posed the question, answered by three of the five candidates who showed up:
QUESTION: Boston College has proposed to build 90 beds of graduate student or seminarian housing next to the Foster Rock on property that abuts the Orthodox Jewish Community on Portina Road. As City Councilor, how would you address BC's proposal?
Tim Schofield and Mark Ciommo were given the question; under the rules of the forum, since Ciommo didn't take a strong position, another candidate, Rosie Hanlon, was given the chance to answer, too, and did.

Schofield had attended several meetings in the spring which included this project, had voiced a negative opinion about the project at the March meeting of the BC Task Force, and took a strong position opposing it:
SCHOFIELD: I'm opposed to the proposal... So it is really not fair to have this huge piece of property and you are going to put these units at the bottom of the hill of one of the most stable family neighborhoods we have in this community... So again, putting those uses there seems to me, once again, is not taking advantage of the space [BC has] for the appropriate uses. There is a place for that housing, but I don't think that's the location for it.
Schofield appears to have been assessing the relative merits of graduate student or seminarian housing on the former Seminary land (which already houses seminarians) and the Foster Street parcel (which he was rejecting).

Ciommo, on the other hand, was not in attendance at those neighborhood meetings in the Spring, wanted more information to determine where he would stand, and also seemed open to graduate students (not just seminarians):
CIOMMO: ... Graduate students, again, are a different demographic than undergraduate students. You might be adding young families to the neighborhood. In that case, I would look at the demographic proposed for that site. But I would also like to talk to the abutters on Portina Road and see what is acceptable to them. Actually see what the proposal is -- the scope and size of the project. And then make a decision. I want more facts before I make a decision like that.
Hanlon, as as member of the BC Task Force, was, like Schofield, aware of the nature of the project, and expressed a strong opinion that the project has minimal impact:
HANLON: It is my belief that it is seminarian housing and not graduate housing at the bottom of that. And there is low to no impact with that development... Low to no impact is something that we can look at. There is going to be give-and-take when it does come to the master plan, and this might be one of the tools that we can work with.
I am unable to understand fully her point in the last sentence, but it sounds like she was considering use of this property as a bargaining chip in future master plan negotiations.

The score: Schofield opposed the proposal, Ciommo had no position yet (but was open to graduate students), and Hanlon seems OK with the proposal as is. They stepped into the Orthodox minefield and set off some ordinance. Methinks some injury resulted from it.

I wonder if the Portina Road Orthodox community has yet heard about the candidate's positions? I can't imagine that they would be willing to accept a candidate who didn't come out in strong opposition to BC's proposal on this property.

Political insiders have been trying to handicap the Brighton Jewish vote for years, and this year is no different. While one insider expressed the seemingly obvious view that there was no way Schofield would win the Jewish vote, once the Orthodox bloc figures out who's on their side on this seminal seminarian housing issue, I bet Schofield's odds have improved significantly overnight. And as for Councilor Yoon who re-barricaded the extension of Wiltshire Road? He already carried Ward 22 / Precinct 9 in 2005 in the At-Large race. Since Yoon has also endorsed Schofield, the two are bound to help each other out in that neighborhood.

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