JPNC holds off sending letter to T about new garage

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) held its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, December 21, via Zoom. On hand for the session were chair Renee Stacey Welch, vice-chair Bernard Doherty, Willie Mitchell, Sarah Freeman, Dave Baron, Peter DeCotis, Peg Preble, Purple Reign, Katherine O’Shea, Nick Chaves, Danielle Sommer-Kieta, and Esther Beillard.

The full committee heard reports from their various subcommittees, with the primary discussion of the evening pertaining to a request from the Housing and Development Committee to send a letter to the MBTA outlining the JPNC’s requests regarding the new Arborway Garage that will house up to 200 buses of the T’s future electric bus fleet.

The Arborway Garage project has had a long and torturous history dating back almost 25 years to when a new garage was first proposed in 1999 (long before electric buses were even a thought). In 2001, the city (under the signature of then-Mayor Tom Menino) and the T signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the principal features of which were that the city would be abandoning its pole yard adjacent to the garage and that eight acres of the site would be dedicated for community development purposes, such as affordable housing, commercial development, and open green space.

However, the new garage never was constructed and the project essentially was abandoned. Fast-forwarding to 2021, the T, now under a mandate by the state legislature to electrify its buses by 2040, revived the plan for a new Arborway garage as one of a number of such garages in the MBTA district to house its future electric bus fleet. In addition, the city said it no longer planned to abandon its pole yard, which it has converted over the years to a DPW storage facility for rock salt and sand. The change in the city’s plans had the effect of reducing the originally-promised eight acres of community development land to less than six acres.

The Housing and Development Committee came before the council seeking its approval to send a letter to the MBTA demanding that the T: maintain its commitment to set aside the long-promised eight acres of community development space, but on which the T now is proposing to place a parking area for 150 employees; construct a wall between the garage and the community development property to buffer noise and light pollution; add so-called “green walls” in the project; and rework the proposed bus ramps that run through the community development property that may make meaningful development impossible.

Doherty however, pointed out that the letter only addresses issues related to the eight acres of community development land. He said that the letter ignores the fact that the surrounding neighborhood has changed since the original 2001 MOU. He suggested that the committee needs to focus on the effect of the construction, as well as the end result of the project, on nearby residents.

He particularly focused on the substantial increase in buses to be housed in the new garage, up to 200, compared to the much-lower number (about 125) in the original MOU.

“Sending this letter out makes us look like buffoons and gives up any bargaining chips we may have,” said Doherty, “This garage is way too large for this piece of property. 

“You don’t start out by giving everything away,” Doherty continued, referring to the 200 buses that now will be housed there, which is a much-larger number than contemplated in the original 2001 project. “This letter is foolish and does not meet the needs of the people we represent because we do not understand the full effects of its construction.”

Sue Czibulski, a member of the Arborway Garage Sub-Committee, acknowledged that the process with the MBTA “has not been ideal. It would have been better if they had come to us earlier in the process. But the MBTA has revised its plans after hearing from the community and significant improvements have been made to the design and the T has changed its design. This letter represents an overriding perspective that this is not perfect, but we want to get onboard with the MBTA and move this thing forward. We need a new facility and we need electric buses to improve bus service.”

Freeman, while acknowledging the validity of Doherty’s objections, supported sending the letter because, “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

O’Shea suggested that the letter should be reworked “to make it more clear.”

Alan Ihrer, another member of the Arborway Garage Sub-committee who has been involved with the project since the 2001 MOU, noted that the increase to 200 buses had been mentioned to the JPNC almost two years ago. However, he noted that the MBTA’s proposed ramps will trifurcate the eight-acres, which, he said, makes development all but impossible.

“Let’s put this letter on hold so we can have a discussion among ourselves to better understand this project,” concluded Doherty. “Don’t do this letter. It is going to handcuff us. We’ve got a lot to lose if we put out something willy-nilly.”

Mitchell reinforced Doherty’s point-of-view, saying, “We need to step back and revisit this and look at this letter much more seriously. The T has wasted 20 years going back and forth with this.” 

The members, with Sommer-Kieta, the chair of the Housing and Development Committee in agreement, then voted to delay sending the letter at this time and referred the letter back to the Housing and Development Committee for revisions.

In other committee reports:

O’Shea presented the report from the Outreach Committee. She requested a vote from the full council to approve the posting of the “JPNC 101” slides to the JPNC’s website, which O’Shea said would be a useful resource to the community. The council unanimously approved the motion.

O’Shea suggested that her committee, perhaps in conjunction with other committees, should hold a “Zoning Reform Workshop/Series” in order to educate residents about the upcoming changes to the city’s zoning ordinances.

Baron, the chair of the Zoning Committee, said there is a widespread lack of understanding about what the proposed changes will entail for residents not only for Jamaica Plain, but throughout the city. He also said that the city is rushing the process without involvement from the city’s neighborhoods.

Sommer-Kieta noted that the biggest proposed changes involve Article 80, with the goal of fast-tracking affordable housing development throughout the city with less input from the affected communities.

O’Shea agreed to meet off-line with other committee members to discuss the issue.

Welch presented the report for the Public Service Committee in the absence of its chair, Michael Reiskind. She noted that the committee has been discussing the proposal for photo/video enforcement of red light violations.

“I’ve seen people flying through red lights without even a second thought,” said Welch. “Do I think it’s a good idea? I don’t know, but it’s a discussion we should all be a part of.”

There also was a brief update on the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association’s new contract, with members noting that the new contract for the first time allows the use of trained civilian flaggers at construction details if police or other designees are unable to fill the detail request.

Chaves presented the report from the Parks Committee. He said that the committee sent a survey to members of the JP community and that “a majority of respondents want to see the committee focus on green space preservation/protection and advocacy to improve/upgrade existing parks and playgrounds.”

He said that one priority among respondents is to have local playgrounds be lighted in the evening in the winter hours. He said that the lights turn off at 4:00 p.m. in the winter, but that it would be preferable to have the lights stay on until 8:00 p.m., as is done in other countries in the wintertime.

He asked that the full committee approve sending a letter to the city’s Parks and Rec Dept. advocating this change. After a brief discussion among the members, the full committee voted unanimously to send the letter.

Chaves also provided an update on the new bike lanes, some of which have been completed and others that will be completed in the spring.

Baron presented the report of the Zoning Committee, which met twice in December regarding six applications for zoning relief. He asked for approval by the full JPNC of the Zoning Committee’s recommendations in which the committee approved five of the applications and rejected one.

The five recommendations for approval were:

— 11 Edge Hill Street; Purpose of Appeal: Renovate existing single-family home including expanding living area into basement for the owner’s growing family. Variance for Floor Area Ratio Excessive;

— 615-619 Centre Street, Purpose of Appeal: Operate Shay Butter Smoothies with take-out on the site of the former Pho Mu restaurant, with the proviso that the variance for take-out is for the current business and the business-owner only; 

 — 75 McBride Street:  Remove and replace first-floor rear porch; current porch is 3’ x 5’; new porch is to be 11’ x 14’ with a roof. A variance is needed because the Side Yard setback is insufficient; 

— 77 Woodland Road, Purpose of Appeal: Confirm occupancy as single-family residence, renovate property, create two off-street parking spaces and storage area in basement, add second-floor addition. Variances are needed because the side yard and rear yard setbacks are insufficient; and.

— 104 Child Street. Purpose of Appeal: Construct addition including a two-car garage and home office; the garage will connect to a second-floor workshop and storage area; add roof garden and solar panels to the roof. Variances are needed for: Extension of Non-Conforming Building; Side Yard Insufficient; Rear Yard Insufficient; Front Yard Insufficient; and Floor Area Ratio Excessive.

The full council endorsed all five of the Zoning Committee’s favorable recommendations. The owners now must go before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to obtain their variances.

Finally, the full council, after some discussion, agreed with the Zoning Committee’s rejection of the application by the developers of 61 Montebello Road, who came before the Zoning Committee seeking to construct a multi-family building for which a number of variances were needed which, according to the agenda item, were as follows : “Forbidden Use: Multi-Family Residential; Zoning Violations: Floor Area Ratio Excessive, Building Height Excessive (Feet and # of Stories); Side Yard Insufficient.” 

Baron noted that there were objections from a neighbor pertaining to the height of a proposed addition to the existing building and that the Egleston Square Neighborhood Assoc. (ESNA) was opposed to the project.

The JPNC’s negative recommendation is advisory only and the developer may go before the city ZBA to obtain the needed variances.

The council’s next meeting will be January 23.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.