BPDA Opens Discussion on Potential Fenway Zoning Changes

By Adam Swift

The Boston Planning & Development Agency is looking at potential zoning changes in the Fenway that could help pave the way for several large-scale developments proposed for the neighborhood.

But several Fenway residents and community activists said they feel the city is moving forward with too ambitious of a timeline when it comes to altering zoning in the neighborhood.

The BPDA held an online forum on planning and zoning on Monday, Dec. 5 that was attended by about 80 people.

Planning officials gave a general overview of pending projects in the neighborhood, as well as the timeline for plans to potentially tweak the zoning ordinances in the Fenway.

As the process gets underway, BPDA Chief of Planning James Jemison said he has heard from the community, development, staff members, and the media that the zoning process has the needed time to advance and fully develop.

“One of the challenges that we have at the BPDA today … is that great projects often require that specific changes to zoning be allowed because the strength of the market kind of outstrips our capacity to update through community processes the zoning,” said Jemison.

Historically, he said, people have been drawn to find ways to make the zoning code allow for great development without necessarily being driven to global changes.

“So one of the efforts we have been undertaking, and this effort is part of it, is to find a way for a path for good development to advance while also taking the time required to make some of the broader zoning changes that are needed,” said Jemison. “This is a balance. In prior occasions, there has been an effort to make a specific change that allows an individual development, but I think in this case, our goal is to try to find a way to quickly advance on these things that enable good development that’s had a full review and discussion, while also taking the time it takes to make good zoning changes over the long term.”

Kristina Ricco, a senior planner at the BPDA, laid out some of the history of planning and zoning in the Fenway, as well as discussing some of the larger projects in the pipeline for the neighborhood.

“The Fenway today is a very vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood,” she said, with renowned cultural, educational, medical, and sports institutions, as well as 38,000 residents. “It’s imperative that growth in the neighborhood meets the needs of these residents and institutions.”

The most recent neighborhood planning efforts in the Fenway were undertaken in the early 2000s, resulting in the Fenway Neighborhood Action Plan and a land use and urban design guidelines document.

“At the time when these two processes were undertaken, Fenway was a very different place,” Ricco said. “The planning effort at the time back in the early 2000s focused primarily on addressing land use and density controls that were established in the 1950s. Our land use and density controls in the Fenway as of the early 2000s were outdated and established at a time when the neighborhood was dominated by manufacturing and low-density business uses.”

The planning and zoning revamp of the early 200s envisioned four subdistricts in the neighborhood, as well as two overlay districts, which Ricco said established greater flexibility for greater public benefit.

The Gateway Overlay District granted increased density and building height to unique projects that advanced the design and use directives of the entire district, according to Ricco. The Planned Development Area Eligibility (PDA) Overlay District granted similar dimensional incentives as the Gateway District and streamlined the permitting process to encourage development in areas then dominated by auto-related uses and surface parking.

“PDAs aren’t unique to Fenway, the city utilizes this special approval, known as Article 80C, all over the city,” Ricco said.

The planning and zoning changes of the early 2000s were codified by the neighborhood zoning article of 2005, intended to provide some certainty of overall scale of development and an array of uses which were flexible enough for changing market dynamics and public preferences.

“The changes in zoning that were envisioned by that planning effort in the early 2000s enabled significant investment which has transformed the Fenway,” said Ricco. “Since Article 66 was updated in 2004, the BPDA has approved 7 million square feet of development, including 2.5 million square feet of residential use and 4.5 million square feet of commercial use.”

Looking forward to development, and the reason for the zoning forum, Ricco said there are currently four projects under review by the BPDA.

Those projects include a half-million square feet of development at 1400 West Boylston, the current Star Market site, for research and development and some retail; 165 Park Drive, which is primarily 100,000 square feet of residential development on the Holy Trinity Orthrodox Cathedral site; Fenway Corners, which is a massive 2 million-square-foot development on four lots surrounding Fenway Park that includes research and development, residential, retail, and parking; and the 2 Charlesgate West site, which is primarily 250,000 square feet of residential development.

Other than Park Drive development, Ricco said the projects all need some level of zoning relief that is not currently provided in the modification to Article 66.

“We’re facilitating this conversation because the changes that they need are pretty diverse,” said Ricco. “To contemplate those changes is a really important opportunity to revisit some big questions.”

Some of those things to be considered include determining what aspects of West Fenway’s existing zoning are still relevant and if there are features of the zoning that could better serve development that’s in line with neighborhood values, Ricco said.

“Second, the 2002 plan specifically addresses the types of uses to be encouraged in a mixed-use development and are these still the right uses?” she said. “Finally, new zoning was designed to leave enough flexibility for a changing market dynamic and public preferences and are those limits that we have in place still achieving those goals?”

Rather than asking the community to consider the zoning exceptions on a case-by-case basis, Ricco said the BPDA is proposing to revisit aspects of West Fenway zoning, including appropriate uses, building height, and density collectively in a community process led by the BPDA.

The first step of that process is considering the zoning changes that would affect allowed uses, height, and PDA eligibility.

“There would be three meetings associated with that phase, the first meeting is the meeting we are having tonight where we introduce the concept of Fenway zoning and its relationship to the development pipeline and the need for some kind of reform,” said Ricco. “The second meeting, we’d be back with you in January to discuss very specific zoning scenarios for use and PDA eligibility, and if that conversation goes well, if that is a scenario that folks are excited about and interested in, we would then proceed to the BPDA board potentially in February to be followed by the zoning commission.”

The discussion on density would be a longer process, Ricco said, likely started next spring in conjunction with the Fenway-Kenmore Transportation Action Plan.

During a question and answer period, several residents and community leaders raised concerns about the seemingly rapid advancement of potential zoning changes over the next two months.

Marie Fukuda said she was involved in the zoning process in the early 2000s, and that it was a robust process and not run by the BPDA. She said she wanted to hear more about how the BPDA envisioned the current process and how there would be real participation from residents.

Freddie Veikley asked how the zoning changes would affect and improve the life of Fenway residents.

Ricco said the question was at the heart of the discussion about PDAs.

“The reason that PDAs exist is this concept that we would exchange greater entitlement for extraordinary benefit,” said Ricco. “The public benefit there is really supposed to be transformational in nature, so I think that some of the benefit received from PDA benefits previously have demonstrated the power of those approvals and I think talking about what things the community feels would make it a better place are part of the conversation we are trying to have.”

Kennan Rhyne of the BPDA noted that the current process was also being undertaken as a way to adjust planning and zoning in a more timely manner, rather than making large-scale changes every several decades.

Fenway Community Development Corporation Board member Joanne McKenna said the zoning discussion is important work, and said the time frame stated by the BPDA during the holiday season was too rushed. She said she would also like to see an assessment of the underlying current zoning for the Fenway to determine what might still work and where there is room for change.

“I would like to see a conversation of what worked 20 years ago and if it is still a valid vision of a liveable neighborhood,” said McKenna.

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