11 years later, ‘interim’ LMA guidelines sticking around

March 7, 2014
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LONGWOOD MEDICAL/ACADEMIC AREA—The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) Longwood Medical and Academic Area Interim Guidelines, a vague and controversial set of development rules, are becoming de facto permanent guidelines as the BRA has no plans to replace or amend them a decade after their implementation.

The guidelines are a kind of zoning overlay district that allow developers to far exceed zoning limits in exchange for building in other areas of the city as well, typically in spots favored by the Mayor’s Office.

The guidelines were rushed into place in January 2003 under the promise that they would turn into a permanent, zoning-type master plan within 18 months, following a review by a citizens advisory committee. But the rules have never been finalized, and the public review never happened.

In 2003, the Joslin Diabetes Center proposed a 305-foot residential tower as part of an expansion plan. At the same time, that exact 305-foot number became the maximum height limit for LMA buildings in the BRA Interim Guidelines. That tower design has been gone from Joslin’s plans for years, but the 305-foot limit remains in the unfinished Interim Guidelines.

BRA spokesperson Melina Schuler told the Gazette this week that, “The Guidelines have been effective and successful in guiding and growing institutional development in the LMA in conjunction with the Institutional Master Planning process and Article 80 review. The Interim Guidelines continue to be in effect and will continue to serve the area moving forward.”

That is, they will remain interim on an ongoing, indefinite basis. There do no appear to be any plans for further public input in place.

“The BRA continues to participate in the LMA Forum, which are public meetings where the consistency of institutional projects with the Interim Guidelines is discussed,” Schuler said. But the guidelines themselves are not up for alteration there.

Schuler also said the guidelines have worked well so far.

“The LMA Interim Guidelines have directly resulted in quality urban design in the LMA, the creation of comprehensive transportation infrastructure, job creation and workforce development programs, and economic investment in other neighborhoods,” she said.

A common complaint against the guidelines is that they are used to approve pet projects and push institutions to build in other favored areas, such as the South Boston waterfront.

The Interim Guidelines remain in effect on any LMA project that requires BRA review. In practice, that covers virtually all development in the rapidly expanding area. The guidelines have influenced several massive developments—including major expansions at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital—and permitted several buildings that are much higher than normal zoning allows.

The BRA announced the interim guidelines just before Thanksgiving 2002 and swiftly approved them in mid-December of that year. Since then, the BRA, without explanation, rejected proposals from a consultant team to create a final master plan. It also convened a private summit of planning experts that did not result in a final plan, either. Most of the experts recommended more public input, which has not happened.

In 2005, the BRA told the Gazette the guidelines were undergoing unspecified “studies” with no deadline for finishing them. There has been no clarification of their status since then.

The guidelines were criticized by residents and institutions alike for vague or arbitrary language that could allow behind-the-scenes deals. Especially controversial was the “bonus system” that allows institutions to build much larger structures in exchange for a variety of community benefits under unexplained formulas.

The guidelines establish three basic height limits in the LMA: 75 feet for streetfront buildings; 150 feet for those set farther back; and 205 feet for those in the center of a block.

But the bonus system allows all of those heights to increase in exchange for a variety of loosely defined community benefits, including building other facilites off-site.

Former Mayor Thomas Menino and the BRA used the bonus system to allow bigger LMA buildings in exchange for institutional development in other parts of the city—first in Roxbury, and more recently in South Boston.

For example, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 2006 got approval for a 185-foot streetfront building—in excess of the guidelines’ basic 75-foot height limit—in exchange for creating a “Harbor Campus” on the waterfront.

An even bigger height boost—up to the maximum of 305 feet—is allowed if the development includes an unspecified residential component.

BRA officials have refused to explain why the odd 305-foot figure was chosen. (The equally mysterious 205-foot basic limit underlying it appears designed solely to enable the 305-foot maximum height.)

Critics have noted that at the time, Joslin was proposing the 305-foot residential tower—either a remarkable coincidence or a case of planning rules tailor-made to allow a controversial project. The original Joslin project was approved by the BRA under the guidelines later in 2003. The project later failed and a new developer is nearing completion of a smaller building on the same site.

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