Ahead of the March hearing of the city’s Zoning Commission, which is expected to result in the approval of the requested zoning changes that would allow the proposed Longwood Place project to move forward, community members convened for an in-person meeting to discuss the project’s potential shadow impact on the Emerald Necklace on Monday, Feb. 27, at the Fenway Community Center.
Skanska USA Commercial Development intends to redevelop Simmons University’s approximately 5.8 acre residential campus located at 305 Brookline Ave. into Longwood Place, an approximately 1.75 million gross square feet of residential, office/laboratory, retail, restaurant, commercial, community space, and parking. The project would comprise five buildings, ranging in height from 295 feet to 170 feet, and replace a cluster of brick dormitory buildings that currently occupies the site.
If this project is approved, it would get underway following the completion of Simmons’ new, 21-story Living and Learning Center on Avenue Louis Pasteur, which will provide athletics space, a dining hall, and approximately 1,100 dormitory beds.
Now, the Longwood Place project hinges on the city’s final approval of a Planned Development Area (PDA) that would create an overlay district for the 5.8-acre project site. The PDA would allow the project to exceed the height limit and create new shadow for more than one hour on the Emerald Necklace, Joslin Park, or Evans Way Park in direct violation of the Longwood Medical Area (LMA) Interim Guidelines. The Boston Planning & Development Agency board of directors authorized the approval of this PDA at its virtual Thursday, Jan. 19, monthly hearing, while the matter is set to go to the Zoning Commission for final approval at its virtual March 29 hearing. (The Zoning Commission was originally scheduled to review this matter on March 1, but the meeting has been rescheduled to later in the month due to a lack of quorum.)
Speakers on hand for Feb. 27’s “Out of the Shadows: The Longwood Place Proposal and its Impact on the Emerald Necklace” meeting, included Tim Horn, president of the Fenway Civic Association; landscape architect Elena Saporta; Jack Schleifer, field operations manager for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy; and Steve Wolf, a member of the Conservancy’s board of advisors.
Horn, who was also a member of the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) for the One Simmons project, as well as a member of the review body for the Institutional Master Plan (IMP) for Simmons College, said, “I never thought [Simmons and Skanska] would violate the LMA guidelines. Never in my mind did I think that would happen.”
Regarding the BPDA board’s approval of the PDA, Horn said, “I believe the system was flawed. The review body was not familiar with shadows and not shown the study until the very end.”
According to the shadow study, on March 21 – the Spring Equinox – which Wolf described as “the start of the growing season,” as well as a “critical time for plant growth,” the Longwood Place project would create 5.25 hours of new shadow, affecting 8.14 acres on the Riverway and 2.86 acres on the Back Bay Fens.
On Dec. 21 – Winter Solstice – the Longwood Place project is expected to cast 6.75 hours of new shadow, affecting 8 acres on the Riverway, 1.5 acres on Liff Park, and .5 acres on the Back Bay Fens, according to the study.
Mitigation for Longwood Place, which would only be allocated if the project moves forward, Wolf noted, includes a $6 million endowment to be managed by the Boston Parks Department for the affected areas on the Emerald Necklace, as well as an additional $1 million to study the impact of shadows on parkland.
Wolf, together with Saporta and Fenway residents Marie Fukuda and Freddie Veikley, started an online petition to prevent any new shadow from encroaching on the Emerald Necklace due to new development (available at https://www.change.org/p/protect-the-emerald-necklace-parks-please-don-t-take-our-sunlight-away?redirect=false); as of Wednesday, March 1, the petition had garnered more than 2,500 signatures towards its goal of 5,000 signatures.
Wolf pointed out that the petition only comes in response to the potential shadow impact related to the height of Longwood Place while describing many other aspects of the project as “state-of-the-art urban design.”
Contrary to the significant amount of new shadow that would be cast on the parkland per the shadow study, Saporta said Skanska had pledged that the Longwood Place development would create a maximum of two hours of new shadow.
Meanwhile, Schleifer discussed some of the ecological concerns related to shadow, including soil health, which could lead to reduced germination of seeds, reduced microclimates, and challenges with root establishment; invasive species, which generally thrive in shadowy conditions; the health of canopy trees; and water quality and river health.
Dolly Boogdanian of Audubon Circle said the parkland where she has walked regularly for the past 40 years would be impacted by the new shadows cast by Longwood Place.
“Our parks are not a competing interest,” said Boogdanian. “These are not something you barter away so you can get something else.”
Moreover, Boogdanian pointed out that while the PDA makes provisions for approximately 2.3 acres of new public open space on the project site, its language could later be amended, resulting in the future development of that parcel.
“I consider that land banking,” she said. “Someday, those beautiful two acres won’t be open space.”
Likewise, Pam Jorgensen, president of Fenway Victory Gardens and a neighborhood resident, said she believes that the project pits Simmons College against the Emerald Necklace. “And I find that deeply, deeply upsetting,” she added.
Longtime Fenway resident Veikley said, “It’s a huge project that doesn’t need to cast that much shadow on our public parks, and it doesn’t need the height.”
Veikley pointed out that even if the Zoning Commission were to authorize the PDA at its March hearing, Mayor Michelle Wu still “has the option not to sign off on it and can equate her non-signature with changes [to the project] she wants to make.”
Maggie Van Scoy, Mayor Wu’s Neighborhood Services liaison for Fenway-Kenmore, as well as for Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and Mission Hill, was in attendance and said she would report comments from the meeting back to Mayor Wu ahead of the March Zoning Commission hearing.
“We know this issue is of paramount importance to the community,” she said.
District 8 City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who was also on hand for the meeting, said she feels like she’s “really walked into a bind as a councilor,” not only because the future of Simmons hinges on the success of the project, but also because negotiations for the project were already underway when she took office in January of 2020.
But despite these challenges, Councilor Bok said she negotiated a 25-foot reduction in height for the building’s tallest building in January.
Councilor Bok also noted that each of the buildings would be subject to the city’s Article 80B review process for large projects so there would be future opportunities to refine the plan and for the community to provide further input.
Regarding the Longwood Place project’s inherent conflict with the LMA interim guidelines, Councilor Bok said, “The guidelines issue is a huge issue citywide. The BPDA works on guidelines and doesn’t put them into the process” (e.g. Stuart Street).
Laura Brink Pisinski, vice president of university real estate development and facilities management for Simmons College, said she had heard the concerns voiced at the meeting and would discuss them with Skanska.
“We’ll continue to try to modify the project throughout the process,” she said. “We’re not done with this conversation. Don’t think that this is the end of the story, just because the Zoning Commission approves the zoning. I think this is a much longer conversation than that.”
Simmons will maintain control of the project site for the duration of the 99-year lease, she added.
Pisinski asked that the project be allowed to proceed. “If we don’t move forward, I think the collaboration stops,” she said.
Kyle Greaves, a manger of commercial real estate development for Skanska, said the project has evolved in response to community input, with more housing, more open space, and reduced height, all of which were achieved while reducing the shadow impact.
But Greaves added, “We cannot move forward with a project when we don’t know the shadow guidelines.”
Meanwhile, Horn of the Fenway Civic Association suggested that the community ask the Zoning Commission and the city to defer approving the PDA for Longwood Place, or a more likely option, he said, would be to request revised PDA language on the project’s maximum shadow impact.
“To allow the PDA to violate the parkways ordinance is just completely wrong,” he said of the ordinance that no building or structure can be built or altered within 100 feet from a park or parkway within the City of Boston without prior written permission from the Parks and Recreation Department.
But as Horn also acknowledged: “Simmons needs this project, and we need Simmons.”