On a Thursday evening in Curtis Hall, a Jamaica Plain community center, a group of about a dozen abutters (owners of a property that touches another) meet to determine the merit of a six-unit housing project on Lamartine Street. As the homeowner, his attorney, and the project’s architect discuss the changes made to the plans since the last meeting was called, the owners of its surrounding properties ask numerous questions about the impact this new building would have both on their properties and on the residential community as a whole.
Doesn’t this building seem “dominating?” they ask. Actually no, comes the architect’s reply. It’s “tiny” compared to zoning regulations. The abutters clarify this statement: compared to the rest of the community, this proposed apartment would stick out like a sore thumb.One woman exclaims that “We just don’t have six-unit apartment buildings! It’s out of character for our neighborhood!” She asks the owner and the architect if they could be more creative with the designs. Another suggested workaround is to downsize the third floor: instead of having a complex of two three-bedroom apartments on the first and second floors and two two-bedrooms on the third floor, maybe the third floor only needs one two-bedroom apartment. The attorney explains that it wouldn’t change the height of the building. He also wasn’t sure that the building’s size was such a big issue. “It’s an issue,” the crowd pipes up in unison. A man up front worries about whether allowing a building this massive will set a precedent for zoning in this neighborhood and cause more property owners to build their own six-unit projects. The attorney interrupts repeatedly with “no,” attempting to quell fears that this development would create a domino effect around the neighborhood by explaining that the zoning board takes things on a case-by-case basis. It is with this comment that the abutters all start speaking at once. The attorney tries to speak over the crowd to say that setting precedents is “not how zoning works.” “That’s EXACTLY how zoning works!” exclaims one woman. She follows this up by encouraging the attorney to visit 60 Green Street and look at another apparent eyesore of a building; this comment is punctuated by another abutter, remarking, “How did the city allow that thing?”
After the meeting ends and everyone is packing up to leave, Andrew Baldizon notes to me that setting precedents really isn’t how zoning works. When the attorney was encouraged to visit the Green Street building, he chimed in to say that, to be fair, the Green Street building had 5 or 6 abutters meetings and is absolutely a result of those meetings. He knows this because he was at those meetings.
“I actually think it’s 65 Green Street,” he told me later. “The development team had a lengthy process of meetings and taking community feedback… the give-and-take of those meetings and the feedback the developers ultimately incorporated influenced the building into what it is today.”
Baldizon is an aide for City Councilor Matt O’Malley and is the Director of Zoning, Licensing, and Community Affairs for the 6th district of Boston, which includes most of Jamaica Plain, including Egleston Square. One of the more frequent responsibilities of this job is attending meeting like these, which he does several times a week.
The involvement of a local political office in the development field starts with abutters meetings, where the leaders of a project will lay out the plans for the lot and take questions from those who know the site: its neighbors. As the formal role of a city councilor is a seat on the Zoning Board of Appeals, a representative from the Councilor’s office will be present at each abutters meeting to take notes. Baldizon says that he rarely speaks at these meetings, mostly taking notes and answering the occasional procedural question. After “taking the temperature of the neighbors,” he details his observations of the meeting—what he perceived to be the community’s stance on the development, how receptive the developers are to their wishes—to the Councilor, who will decide on a stance to take at the ZBA meeting. The office won’t actually “rubber-stamp” anything, though; “the closest we get is saying yes or no” to variance appeals, and even then they act as “only one voice in a chorus” of opinions.
A development has to go through the Zoning Board of Appeals to apply for “variances:” an aspect of the proposed building that varies in some way from the city’s zoning code. Before being greenlit by the city, every variance must be approved individually. The next step for a proposed development after the abutters meetings is to go in front of the Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee to ask for their approval of the project. The Committee will vote amongst themselves to approve the entire project, approve some of the variances and deny others, or to deny the entire project. Despite what the abutter said at the Lamartine St. meeting, Baldizon explains that precedents don’t apply when appealing for variances. “Just because one five-story building was approved on Washington Street doesn’t mean we’ll approve everything down the line… so far every project is unique.” This lack of precedence is attributed to how “muddled” the Zoning Board is. He elaborates: the zoning code is extremely complex: the language is vague in places, there are steps to projects described as “simple” such as building a porch that “should be streamlined,” the code itself is always being worked on and revised, and “it takes serious paid experts” to understand and navigate.
The “muddled” nature of the zoning process was demonstrated to me at the Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee meeting. A group showed the committee its plan for a new location of the popular local Mexican establishment Chilacates, a plan that needed two variances. The committee expressed approval for the height variance, but they were hesitant on the variance that would allow the location to serve takeout. Some of the members disliked the uncertainty of the ownership group, asking the developers “how sold are you on having Chilacates as a client?” Other members wanted the variance to be contingent on Chilacates remaining the client and on the Chilacates ownership not changing. Still others wanted to deny the motion “to take a position” and defy setting a precedent of awarding a conditional takeout variance. After a lengthy internal discussion, a motion was brought forth to approve the height variance but to deny the takeout variance. The motion barely failed to reach a majority, however; the vote ended up split with 6 members for, 6 against. Another committee member, whose offer to change the language to make it contingent on Chilacates’ ownership remaining stagnant was rebuffed by the member who proposed the first motion, proposed a second motion. This motion would approve the takeout variance, contingent on it being Chilicates and on them returning to the committee to discuss the project. The committee leader disapproved of this motion as it was “too wordy” and “too vague” for his taste, but it passed 8-4. He concluded the discussion by saying “That’s our motion, if you can make sense of it.”
Housing development is one of the most significant issues in the Jamaica Plain and Egleston Square communities. Issues like sunlight and affordability (the price for one particular project proposed on Washington Street, for example, is set at 70% median income, which is twice the average income at Egleston Square), along with the aesthetic merit and quality-of-life issues, were described by Baldizon as very pertinent to Egleston residents of all ages. He states that the two words that best fit these residents are “passionate” and “informed:” they know everything that could interfere with their interests “inside and out,” and will passionately defend the unique qualities of their neighborhoods, often on the “front lines” trying to “push [the projects] into what’s in line with their vision” of the neighborhood and community every step of the way, from giving feedback in abutters and zoning meetings to gathering outside a development to protest it. When we were waiting for the Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee to start, Baldizon pointed out to me a woman who was adamantly opposed to the aforementioned Washington Street project and had been contacting the Councilor’s office to convince them to publicly oppose the project also. “We will,” he told me, “but we don’t want to say that yet.”
Councilor O’Malley’s concerns are mostly in sync with those of his constituents, especially when it comes to environmental and zoning issues. Sometimes, of course, O’Malley will have to choose the buildings over the wishes of the neighborhood majority. Had the Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee denied the variance for the new Chilacates location, for example, Baldizon told me that the Councilor’s office would have gone against the Committee’s opinion and expressed support for the project at the ZBA meeting. “That’s just development,” he notes, admitting that it sometimes is “not a great place to be a politician’s aide.” Despite this, he notes with a smile that it’s still a place where one can see the Egleston community acting together with a unified spirit. I saw this when I was at the abutters meeting, too: a man piped up towards the end of the meeting not to criticize the design (he mentioned that two other abutters who had asked a number of questions throughout the meeting were “doing a great job of that already”) but to say something positive about the development. “The building looks good,” he told the architect, attorney, and homeowner, “and it’s getting better.” For his part, the attorney demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with the abutters that went past simply informing them about the changes. He mentioned several times that his group is here because he wants the abutters’ input, saying that “You [the abutters] live here; you see [the area] every day,” and that for the sake of transparency he will send out the plans for the project to the abutters, something that he reports is not only not a legal requirement, it’s frowned upon to do so in his field. When he thanked everyone for being present, a woman in the back thanked him “for being such a gentleman” during the process.