Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Civics Lesson on Zoning

The Boston College student newspaper, The Heights, published an op-ed by freshman Kelly McCartney under the title, "University Has a Right to Expand":
What does come at a cost is BC's 10-year plan, a $1.6 billion effort to better the University. In addition to increasing the range of academics and activities available to undergraduates and the community, BC is also spending precious funds to increase the number of students on campus per the city of Boston's new recommendation.

Unfortunately, putting more students on campus is not enough for the neighborhood of Allston-Brighton. They also want to decide when, where, and how we do so. A popular opinion of the surrounding neighborhoods demands that BC add additional stories to residence halls on the Chestnut Hill campus to dissolve the need for housing on the Brighton Campus [former St. John's Seminary land].
Does an institution of higher education in Boston have the "right to expand" as they see fit?

In response to this question, (Professor) Harry Mattison, a quick-draw on the Allston Brighton Community Blog, delivered a civics lesson on the concept of zoning:
Actually, BC has no such right.

I have no right to buy some coin-operated washing machines and run a laundromat out of my basement. I have no right to buy my neighbors homes, combine the lots, demolish the existing homes, and build a 10 story apartment building. And regardless of whether or not it is a good idea, Boston College has no "right" to build dormitories, athletic stadiums, or anything else that does not pass the City's review.

Like it or not, we are all governed by Boston's Zoning Code and Boston and every other town and city in America does have the right to limit and restrict development and use of property.
What McCartney fails to recognize is that Boston has, for the past 15 years, has been about the most institutional-friendly Zoning Code that could be invented.

What do I mean? Article 80 of the Zoning Code dates back to 1992, and contains the guiding statutory language governing institutional master plans and other large and small project reviews. Article 80, in a nutshell, establishes a process by which any institution can re-zone their land to build absolutely anything. Yes, literally anything can be built on such land, regardless of the existing zoning.

If BC were to propose a 100-story building at the former St. John's Seminary land, for example, then Article 80 review is basically all they would need to get approval to break ground. Before Article 80, the underlying zoning for the land ("Conservation Protection Subdistrict") under Article 51 of the Zoning Code would have applied, which forbids skyscrapers.

The example is extreme, but the parallel is real. BC is currently proposing dormitories for the same seminary land, which are "forbidden uses" under Article 51 of the underlying Zoning Code -- just like a skyscraper is a forbidden use. That BC proposed dormitories at all for that land is an indication of how permissive Boston's Zoning Code is, in practice, towards institutions.

It might be appropriate for McCartney instead to thank the city of Boston profusely for having a Zoning Code so lax that BC could even consider proposing building those two dormitories.

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