The Boston Planning & Development Agency held its second virtual public meeting on Wednesday, March 8, to discuss proposed changes to zoning in the West Fenway.
Between 2004 – when the city adopted Article 66, which established and codified a zoning article in the Fenway neighborhood for the first time – and last year, more than 2.3 million square feet of residential and around 4.3 million square feet of commercial space has been approved and/or completed throughout the West Fenway and Kenmore while an additional approximately 4.5 million square feet of mixed-use development proposed for the area is currently under review by the BPDA. But since the city’s adoption of Article 66, nearly every (if not all) large-scale development project built in the Fenway has required a zoning variance or the creation of a PDA (Planned Development Area) to move forward, according to longtime residents of the neighborhood. Last week’s meeting on proposed zoning changes in the West Fenway, originally scheduled for Feb. 15, was informed by feedback from the first virtual public meeting on the matter held on Dec. 5, as well as an in-person “listening session” sponsored by District 8 City Councilor Kenzie Bok on Feb. 13 at the Fenway Community Center. Arthur Jemison, BPDA director and chief of planning, said major takeaways from those meetings were that neighborhood residents are open to updating and modifying zoning, especially in regard to the use, height, and density of future development, but they felt that housing and public facilities were missing from the equation. The BPDA intends to incorporate this feedback into new zoning changes for the Fenway by focusing specifically on PDAs, said Kristina Ricco, BPDA senior downtown and neighborhood planner, while leaving the underlying zoning for the neighborhood alone whenever possible. The city also intends to leverage private development to support the creation of affordable housing and public facilities in the Fenway, she said. The BPDA is proposing expanding the boundaries of both the Fenway Triangle NDA (Neighborhood Development Area) and the abutting North Boylston NS-3 subdistrict, said Ricco. Moreover, the BPDA is proposing increasing the PDA-allowed height in the Fenway Triangle NDA from the current 150 feet to 250 feet, she said, and in the Brookline Avenue Commercial Subdistrict from 150 feet to 300 feet. (The proposed zoning changes would formalize the Brookline Avenue Corridor, said Ricco.) For Fenway Corners – a proposed, approximately 2.1 million square-foot project that would transform four blocks around the ballpark into several new buildings containing office/research, retail, and residential space – the requested zoning relief would include exceeding both the 150-foot height limit and the allowable 7.0 FAR (Floor Area Ratio). But in exchange, the project would deliver affordable housing, said Ricco, along with the proposed extension of Richard B. Ross Way from Van Ness Street to Brookline Avenue. The Fenway Corners project would also seek phased approval from the city in response to the Fenway-Kenmore Transportation Action Plan (FTAP), which is now under development and expected to wrap up about a year from now. Likewise, an 11-story lab/office building with additional retail, restaurant, and civic space proposed by developer Samuels & Associates for the Star Market site at 1400 Boylston St., would also exceed both the 150-foot height limit and the allowable 7.0 FAR, said Ricco, while its PDA-eligibility “sunset-ed” in 2012 and requires 60-percent residential use. One of proposed community benefits for this project is a commitment from Samuels & Associates to accommodate a new public library on the site, said Ricco, with “due diligence commencing.” The new Fenway branch library would be financed and operated by the Boston Public Library – not unlike the current arrangement with the Asian Community Development Corporation to provide space at its proposed income-restricted housing development for a permanent Chinatown Branch of the BPL, added Ricco. The announcement of the new Fenway branch library came as a welcome surprise to many Fenway residents on hand for the meeting. Another proposed community benefit from the 1400 Boylston St. project is funding for off-site affordable housing as part of a residential project proposed for 165 Park Drive, adjacent to Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in the Fenway, said Ricco. Regarding the future of Fenway zoning, Councilor Bok said, “The big developments proposed can’t go through without zoning changes, and the community can only support changes if they deliver the core public goods that the community needs.” In her 10-page letter to Director Jemison, Councilor Bok suggests that the BPDA adopt a “standardized mitigation process” for all future large-scale commercial development projects in the Fenway, which would include a $5 commitment per each square foot developed to support transportation mitigation; a $2 commitment per square foot developed to support maintenance of area parks; and for lab space only, an additional $1 per square foot developed to support job development in the life sciences industry. Additionally, Councilor Bok is proposing that developers be required to provide 15,000 net square feet, or 20,000 gross square feet, of space for public facilities (e.g. libraries, schools, Boston Center for Youth & Families space, or park buildings), per every 500,00 square feet of new commercial development in the Fenway, “or else create improvements of an equivalent scale on city-owned land in the Fenway.” Two types of private uses would also be eligible towards these requirements per Councilor Bok’s recommendation – “high-quality childcare that accepts vouchers, and artist studio space—with the caveat that the latter would need to be primarily for art production, not primarily for a commercial (retail or venue) use.” Developers would also be asked to provide “affordable, subsidized food-and-drink concessions located near to key public realm improvements and accompanied by public bathrooms; one concession for a proposal of 500,000 to 1 million square feet, [or] two concessions for 1 to 2 million square feet,” according to Councilor Bok’s letter. Councilor Bok also proposes that every commercial project subject to new PDA zoning in the Fenway be required to devote 20 percent of its gross square footage to creating new housing or instead devote 10 percent of its gross square footage to creating all-affordable housing within the neighborhood, “if produced without further City subsidy (i.e., no linkage/IDP).” In response to Councilor Bok’s proposal for standardized mitigation for future development in the Fenway, Chief Jemison said, “This is the first time we’ve been asked to use a standardized mitigation system, although it’s something we aspire to do.” Moreover, Councilor Bok advised: “While we are awaiting the results of that intended study [on the impact of shadows on city parks], I think we should be extremely hesitant to make any zoning changes to heights or densities, above what is allowed by right today, that could result in projects casting significant additional shadows on the Fens parkland that is encircled by Park Drive, Boylston, Fenway, and Riverway, especially on the vernal or autumnal equinox (March 21 / September 21).” Councilor Bok added that she believes “a certain amount of the density requested by the Fenway Corners proposal needs to be withheld until the results of the Fenway-Kenmore Transportation Action Plan are known and action can first begin to be taken.” Tim Horn, president of the Fenway Civic Association, applauded Councilor Bok for her input and suggestions while requesting that at least one resident of the neighborhood be recruited to participate in the FTAP process. Chief Jemison responded that Horn’s request is a “very reasonable recommendation,” which the BPDA would be able to “accommodate in some way.” Horn, who was a member of the original Fenway Task Force for the Interim Planning Overlay District (IPOD), which helped establish the existing city zoning for the neighborhood, also said he would like a commitment from the city that once the changes to Fenway zoning are adopted, no future “exemptions” will be granted to developers. Fenway resident Maura Zlody said, “I think the BPDA has done a miserable job where height and wind are concerned.” Zlody said the route from Ipswich Street to where Boylston Street and Brookline converge has become a “wind tunnel,” which spills out into the surrounding residential neighborhoods. She added that no developer has provided mitigation for wind impacts in the Fenway and “asked the BPDA to walk it before going to the [proposed] heights.” Another neighbor, Cory DiBenedetto, said public safety amid increased density, along with more vehicular and foot traffic, should also be seriously taken into account, pointing to the need for a greater Boston Police and Fire presence in the neighborhood. Kathleen McBride, a 30-plus-year Fenway resident, asked what the city’s vision for the neighborhood ultimately is and whether there would be a cap on density once it “hits a tipping point” and subsequently becomes too dense. While the public comment period is set to close on March 22, Chief Jemison of the BPDA said that period could likely be extended to March 31 in response to requests from meeting-goers. As for next steps, Chief Jemison said a BPDA board meeting would be scheduled to review the recommended zoning changes, followed by a further community process. If the BPDA approves the proposed zoning changes, the matter would then go to the Boston Zoning Commission for its consideration. Project proponents are the expected to make PDA filings, and new zoning would go into effect “for the remainder of the Fenway” in 2024, he said. The public wan submit written comments via email to Cyrus Miceli, BPDA planning assistant, at ([email protected]), or on the BPDA’s project webpage at https://www.bostonplans.org/planning/planning-initiatives/fenway-kenmore-planning.