City Releases Objectives for Proposed Redevelopment of West End Branch Library Ahead of Public Meeting

Ahead of an Oct. 26 virtual public meeting, the city has released a set of “draft development objectives” for the proposed redevelopment of the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, which include providing an affordable-housing component.

The West End Branch of the Boston Public Library.

The Mayor’s Office of Housing is now drafting a Request for Proposals (RFP) “for a mixed-use development at the current site of the West End Library, which, according to the city, will include “a new ground-floor space for the library and multiple floors of primarily income-restricted, affordable housing above.”

Regarding the project, the city states that its “primary goal is to build a library branch that offers world-class services in a beautiful landmark for the neighborhood, as well one that would have “a strong street presence, enhancing the street fabric and serving as a gathering place on Cambridge Street.”

To achieve this goal, the building would be designed to draw attention to the ground-floor library space amid the housing above and other large buildings on the street. The entrance, stairs, and elevators used to access housing would be  “distanced” from the entrance to the library to give each component a “distinct identity.” The library’s street frontage would also include an outdoor area that would combine open space and seating elements.

Since the current library, which takes up only about one-third of its 20,000 square-foot, has insufficient space for programming, the city is requesting that project proposals devote 17,500 square feet for the library itself.

“It is important that the library has plenty of natural light deep into its large floor plan, possibly through high windows or a clerestory,” according to the city’s memo outlining its draft objectives for the project.

Another project objective, according to the city, is “to maximize the breadth and depth of affordable housing.”

Given the unique combination of library and housing on the site, the city asserts that a rental-housing component would be the “best fit” for the project, “as it helps ensure a productive management relationship between the housing management entity and the City and Boston Public Library.”

Proposals also “should maximize the proportion of income-restricted, affordable units created” in accordance with the community’s “strong preference for projects which can exceed minimum affordability preferences.”

According to the city, “Preference will also be given to projects that include affordability at many income levels (e.g. 30%, 40%, 50%, 60%, 80%, 100% of Area Median Income), to meet the needs of different residents, with as many units available for low- and extremely low-income households as is feasible1. This income gradient will also help to affirmatively further fair housing in the area, which is currently underweighted towards households of color compared to the City as a whole.”

Still, community feedback has also indicated a willingness to consider projects that include a small number of unrestricted units or units restricted at workforce housing levels (e.g. 120 percent of AMI), if this would allow the developer to enhance public benefits, or to “deliver a cross-subsidy to deeply affordable housing.”

These deeply affordable housing-units could be delivered via a unique partnership with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), since Boston is currently around 2,500 units below it “Faircloth Limit,” the maximum number of federal public housing units in the city eligible for a federal subsidy.

The city also intends to meet a variety of different housing needs, including housing for seniors and families, through the project, so proposals should include unit sizes ranging from studios to three-bedrooms.

Other consideration for proposals would be that they have “synergy” with the 45-foot Otis House, located adjacent to the library site to the east; and that they complement other surrounding buildings, some of which are as tall as 80 to 100 feet, particularly buildings on the northern side of Cambridge Street. (The developer would likely need to seek a variance, which would allow the new building to exceed the 65-foot height limit.

Proposals should also contain accessible open space for residents (i.e. a roofdeck above the library), per the requirements for city-funded affordable housing.

The site itself would remain under city ownership, with the housing operator entering into a long-term agreement with the city.

The West End Branch Library public meeting will take place virtually on Thursday, Oct. 26, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

For more information on the project, visit https://www.boston.gov/buildinghousing/west-end-library-housing-public-assets.

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