Thursday, March 06, 2008

Charlesview Redevelopment at Brighton Mills

The Community Builders Inc. has submitted a Project Notification Form to the Boston Redevelopment Authority describing their proposed new development of 400 housing units on part of the Brighton Mills shopping center (plus a smaller parcel across Western Avenue) that would provide housing for the current residents of the 213 housing units at the Charlesview Apartments at Barry's Corner. The new site encompasses 6.92 acres.

Significant neighborhood opposition appears to be forming around a number of specific elements of the proposed replacement housing project: the development is too dense, the buildings too high, the buildings are segregated between affordable (mostly south of Western Avenue) and market-rate (north of Western Avenue), and the mix of units are too family unfriendly.

The proposed development will be the subject of two public meetings convened by the BRA as part of the public comment period on the project: March 10th and 24th at 6:00 - 7:30 pm at the New Balance Headquarters, 20 Guest Street, Brighton, in the 2nd floor cafeteria.

The new development would be part of a land swap between Harvard University, owner of the Brighton Mills and adjacent parcel, and the owners of the Charlesview Apartments. Harvard would subsequently own the current site of the Charlesview Apartments, which is contiguous with many other parcels Harvard owns in North Allston; the Charlesview site would become incorporated into their institutional master plan district, as was indicated in their 50-year institutional master plan filed with the BRA in January 2007.

The proposed new development would provide housing not only for the Charlesview residents currently occupying 213 units, but also an additional 187 units of housing for a total of 400 units, including 118 condominium units (all north of Western Avenue).

The Brighton Mills buildings in question are currently vacant after Harvard terminate leases with the previous occupants (Kmart [here and here], OfficeMax, and Frugal Fannies) over the last few years. The Shaw's supermarket is not part of the proposed development and would be unaffected. Three buildings exist on the parcel across Western Avenue, which would be demolished to make way for the new buildings.

The height of the new buildings would vary from four stories adjacent to North Brighton housing on Litchfield Street, six stories along Western Avenue, to a ten-story tower closest to the Charles River along Soldiers Field Road.

That ten-story tower is the subject of some sleight-of-hand in the PNF filed with the BRA. Figures 2-2 to 2-7 show the layout of the proposed buildings' first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth floors -- but stop there, thereby helping to bury the fact that the proposed tower nearest the Charles River continues on with seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth stories. I predict that the developers will find their greatest opposition from the neighborhood over the height of that ten-story building -- a prediction I made several months ago when they first released a summary of the plans:
If I were placing a wager in the Deval Patrick Casino at Suffolk Downs, I would bet that the 10-story building will become the target of outrage by the neighborhood. There just ain't nothing remotely close to that tall in the North Brighton neighborhood now, although there are some such erections on Watertown's side of the river.

Public Concerns About Charlesview Relocation Proposal

After reading the proposal and watching the discussions on the discussion boards, I think there are a series of concerns -- if not objections -- that many residents in the neighborhood are expressing about the proposed housing project:
  1. Density. The proposed 400 units of housing is much too dense for the location, exceeding current zoning density by approximately a factor of two. It is more dense than the neighboring area by a factor of three or five, depending on who you ask.
  2. Too Many Rentals, Not Enough Owner-Occupied. Allston-Brighton has only a 19.3% rate of owner-occupied housing, well below the city-wide average of 31%(?). In order to bring A-B closer to the city-wide average, the fraction of owner-occupied housing in new housing projects needs to exceed 34%. Basically: put all the housing beyond 213 units (to accommodate current Charlesview tenants) up for sale, rather than have some of it be rental.
  3. Ten Stories Is Much Too Tall. Why such a tall tower closest to the Charles River? To make money to pay for the whole project by selling those as the market-rate units. But that doesn't make up for the problem that ten stories is much, much, much too tall for that neighborhood; it's also twice what zoning allows. North Brighton doesn't have buildings approaching that height, so the relocated Charlesview should stick to heights more consistent with the neighborhood.
  4. Unit Mix is Not Family Friendly. Too many of the units will be 1-bedroom (116) and 2-BR (166), while very few will be 3-BR (77) or 4-BR (41). In fact, the new units (i.e., those not replacing the 213 units at the current Charlesview) are mostly 1-BR (44) and 2-BR (126), with very few new 3-BR (17) and no new 4-BR. Units with fewer bedrooms are appropriate for 20-30-year-olds (or so), but not for families that will need additional bedrooms -- and extra closets, etc. Only 33% of A-B households are family households, while the city-wide average is 48%, indicating that new housing in A-B should emphasize family-friendly features in order to attract families. For the Charlesview relocation proposal, it would be better to change the mix of units to encourage families to move in, rather than to force residents to move out once they have kids. Vancouver, British Columbia has been successfully pushing for family-friendly housing in their downtown; Vancouver has a 25-page set of guidelines as to what makes housing family-friendly.
  5. Open Space. The overall amount of open space appears positive, but it is broken up into several pieces that are walled-off from the rest of the neighborhood. Better would be to put the playground across the street from existing houses to foster interaction between existing and new residents.
  6. Segregation of Affordable vs. Market-Rate Housing. The proposal will put the market-rate housing into the Telford site tower nearest to the Charles River, while putting the affordable housing south of Western Avenue. This isolates the "affordable" housing renters, who will be primarily low-income, from the "market-rate" housing purchasers, who will be higher-end. The neighborhood wants integrated housing, not housing segregated by income.
  7. Setbacks on Western Avenue. OK, I haven't heard this from anyone. Yet. But look at that six-story building (plus mechanicals making a seventh story) butting right up against Western Avenue. No one will want to walk on a Western Avenue darkened by shadows from that tall building without setbacks.
  8. Harvard Should Be Involved. Yes, you heard that right. Harvard is claiming that they are hands-off towards the development, letting Community Builders Inc. define and defend the project. But since Harvard owns so much of everything around the proposed housing, and since Harvard currently owns the land that would be swapped with CBI, Harvard could easily help guide the project. After all, manyof the market-rate units might end being sold to Harvard employees.

Other Coverage of the Charlesview Relocation

The ABNNF met earlier this week to discuss the Charlesview relocation proposal. Over at the Allston Brighton Community Blog, Harry Mattison has links to articles already up about the meeting. Neighborhood opposition appears to be forming around key aspects of the proposal. Mattison questions whether the builders could seek outside funding that could make the project work presumably with fewer units. Harvard has declined to take a role in the project, while Mattison thinks Harvard could play a positive role in the project. He also sees the pattern of the city allowing over-dense housing developments in exchange for additional affordable housing in those developments. The Boston Globe's City Weekly also ran a story last week.

For More Information

The BRA has a webpage with more information on the PNF, including a complete PDF of the PNF (warning: 21.9 MB!) available online.

Public comments on the PNF are due to the BRA by Monday, March 31, 2008:
Jay Rourke, Project Manager
Boston Redevelopment Authority
One City Hall Square, 9th Floor
Boston, MA 02201
phone: (617)918-4317
FAX: (617)742-7783
Public Meetings:
March 10, 2008, 6:00 - 7:30 pm
March 24, 2008, 6:00 - 7:30 pm
Both at the New Balance Headquarters, 20 Guest Street, Brighton, in the 2nd floor cafeteria.

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