By Stephen Quigley
Six months into the top job at the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), Arthur Jemison recently accepted an invitation to hear the concerns of residents at a joint meeting of the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council and the North End Waterfront Residents Association.
Jemison is no stranger to Boston. He worked at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in the early 1990s and most recently served as deputy assistant secretary at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Jemison pointed out that the original mission of the BRA in the 1950s and 60s was to get rid of blighted, substandard housing — also known as urban renewal — but that is not the case today.
He told the audience that the two principal areas that need to be addressed now are increasing the number of affordable housing units and making the city more resilient to global warming, the latter of which is of particular concern to the North End.
With 70 percent of the city’s revenues coming from property taxes, Jemison said, “Growth of the tax base needs to happen and development is essential. The city must do planning and development at the same time that are ahead of the trends that developers are looking at, and shape them into what works for the city.”
After making his introductory remarks, Jemison opened up the floor to questions to the more than 50 residents in attendance, telling the audience that he was here to take notes and to hear the concerns of residents.
Many in attendance voiced a similar concern: that the current Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) does not take the time to hear all points-of-view from residents by limiting the number of community speakers at its meetings.
As one resident bluntly put it, “Our input is ignored.”
Jemison explained that because of a high threshold for projects pursuant to the city’s zoning ordinances, many projects automatically go before the ZBA, which entails a high volume of work for the ZBA.
One resident mentioned that commercial development in the North End seems to be focused on only more restaurants and less on small businesses that provide services, such as a shoe cobbler.
Diane Valle of Charlestown noted that the master planning process in communities such as Charlestown is not going well, a comment that came as a surprise to Jemison.
During the meeting it was pointed out that Maverick Square in East Boston has more density than the North End, a fact that surprised some in attendance, who suggested that density in the No. End is too high.
One resident noted that developers are trying to get a 700-foot tower built in the Bulfinch Triangle where the zoning only allows for a 100- foot height limit.
This prompted another resident to ask, “Does zoning mean anything?”
“Development is not more important than the citizens of Boston,” said Jemison.
Another resident brought up the impact on the neighborhood with the growth of local colleges and the housing of students, which is squeezing out many long-time residents.
The meeting ended with Jemison promising that he would, “love to come back and touch base again with residents.”