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Boston's First Zoning Overhaul In A Half-Century Could Be More Blip Than Boom


Boston is embarking on its first comprehensive zoning plan in 50 years, but density-seeking developers don’t expect significant changes to emerge from a city known for vociferous neighborhood organizations leery of displacement.

CohnReznick partner Ron Walker, Nixon Peabody partner Larry DiCara and Trinity Financial Vice President Eva Erlich

“The real challenge is if we do this kind of zoning, do you have the political courage to say to a hypothetical Mrs. Jones, ‘I know you want open space rather than have a house next door to you, but we really need that space to put up another house,’” said Nixon Peabody partner and former Boston City Council President Larry DiCara, who spoke at Bisnow’s Boston State of the Market 2018 event Tuesday. “I don’t know if the political courage is there to do it.”

Planning initiatives to guide development in East Boston, Mattapan, Newmarket and downtown Boston along with an Allston-Brighton mobility initiative, will kick off later this year, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced in early June. The neighborhood-focused plans add to Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030, the first citywide plan for growth in half a century.

But while calls for more affordable housing pervade Boston at a time when area rents are twice the national average, the city’s notorious Not-In-My-Backyard culture could dampen the reach of any new master plan.

“Even people who are advocates of affordable housing become restrictive when they see it’s going on down the street from them,” DiCara said. “That’s the way the world works.”

Revised neighborhood zoning and an upgraded Fairmount commuter rail line are expected to fuel commercial development in areas like the Newmarket and Mattapan neighborhoods.

Zoning is a political process akin to grabbing the third rail, and recent Boston examples haven’t changed the perception.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency approved a Jamaica Plain and Roxbury zoning plan in 2017 that could lead to thousands of new units of housing along the Washington Street corridor in the two neighborhoods. Neighborhood activists repeatedly protested the vote, and several had to be escorted from the BPDA boardroom by the police. 

But Walsh’s latest round of planning initiatives are more about neighborhood preservation and preventing resident displacement at a time when higher costs downtown are pushing more commercial development into the neighborhoods outlined in his plan.

The East Boston waterfront has become a hotbed of multifamily development, and the nearby Suffolk Downs property is the city’s preferred site for development if Amazon decides to locate HQ2 in Boston.

“These are the natural next steps of growth within our communities that are transit-accessible and that haven’t seen the same level of investment in the urban core,” Colliers International Director of Research Aaron Jodka said. “I don’t see East Boston, Mattapan or Newmarket going up with 50-story high-rises, but you could get more housing in there.”

The BPDA will start working on the plans later in 2018, but these guidelines are expected to be more about incremental tweaks than that of the urban renewal that wiped out the original West End in the 1960s. The Downtown Planning Study was born from the community process for Millennium Partners’ 115 Winthrop Square tower and in response to calls for better guidelines as to how to preserve downtown architecture while accounting for demand for more commercial development. 

East Boston’s plan will rely more on neighborhood preservation while the Mattapan and Newmarket plans will look to boost transit-oriented development and strengthen ties to downtown. The Fairmount commuter rail line runs through both neighborhoods, and increasing its service levels has been a focus of City Hall and transit advocates.

Boston Global Investors CEO John Hynes, KIG Real Estate Advisors President Justin Krebs, Stantec Architecture Vice President Fred Kramer and First American Title Vice President and counsel Anthony Bucchere

The Allston-Brighton mobility study will focus on ways to increase transportation to the neighborhood that is home to Harvard’s science and innovation campus development and attracting developers like NB Development Group at Boston Landing and Mount Vernon Co. along Western Avenue. 

“It does lack specifics at this moment, but the concern in Allston and Brighton is transportation,” Mount Vernon Co. Chairman and founder Bruce Percelay said. “We’re located close to the new [Boston Landing] commuter rail station, and it’s important to know it was so well-received and that the trains were all full.”

Downtown’s last comprehensive plan was 30 years ago, and the BPDA expects to have a final plan submitted by early 2020. The other neighborhood plans are expected to work in tandem, preserving neighborhood fabrics while promoting their viability for the kind of commercial, market-rate developments seen in more construction-laden neighborhoods like the Seaport and the South End. 

KIG Real Estate Advisors President Justin Krebs, speaking of Boston’s market fundamentals at Tuesday’s Bisnow event, said he doesn’t think neighbors should fear more density; it is simply the sign of a prosperous city. 

“What we need to do in the planning in the Boston area is to recognize the increase in density is not a challenge to what a neighborhood is and isn’t,” Krebs said. “It’s a natural requirement for us to grow.”