Three thoughts on Squares + Streets as we get underway in Roslindale Square

NOTE: The following are entirely the personal thoughts of the poster, not the entire organization or even the Board of Directors of WalkUP Roslindale. – mjl

There is no question that the manner in which Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) leadership and staff are going about the Squares + Streets small area planning process is a departure in significant ways from past practice and that this departure, which is significant, has led to some understandable confusion among those who most closely follow the city’s planning and development processes. Herewith, three thoughts about where we find ourselves at this moment:

  1. Floating Zones are a new thing in this city – This has probably been the most difficult conceptual issue for everyone to get used to. I’m not aware of any prior examples of the Boston Zoning Code containing a set of base zoning districts that aren’t mapped anywhere upon their adoption by the Zoning Commission, but that is exactly what is being done with Squares + Streets. This is not unusual outside of Boston – the concept of floating zones has been around in planning and zoning circles for decades. The new S-zones – S-0 through S-5 – that are slated for a vote on April 17, 2024, will go into Article 26 of the code and will comprise, upon their adoption, only a suite of potential base zones to be deployed later. Each area undergoing the Squares + Streets small area planning process is expected to ultimately bring a selection of these zones down to the ground in the configuration that their process says makes the most sense. This is worth repeating – no part of Roslindale is going to be rezoned as part of the text amendments under consideration next month. Instead, rezoning for a portion of Roslindale Square will only occur after the small area planning process, which is just now getting underway in earnest, has run its course and a multi-faceted plan, of which targeted rezoning is expected to be a part, is adopted by the BPDA.
  2. Planning Processes, at any scale, of 6 to 9 months are, you guessed it, new as well for Boston – This is largely because planning processes leading to rezoning in this city have usually covered much larger areas, typically entire neighborhoods, as part of the so-called “base code” or the original neighborhood zoning article efforts of prior decades or the newer plans such as Plan East Boson and Plan Mattapan. Full neighborhood-wide planning processes like the latter two have taken several years. By being focused about the areas to be examined, visioned, and then rezoned, the idea is to be able to move with the speed and urgency that the ongoing housing crisis demands. And let’s be clear that the housing crisis truly is a crisis, an emergency even, and the Mayor recognizes that
  3. Finally, truly usable As-of-Right Zoning is entirely new – Underzoning with the intent of pulling almost everything that happens into a discretionary approval process has a long, troubling history here in Boston, across the commonwealth, and frankly around the country. If you want to learn more about how this has worked over several decades, I’d suggest taking a look at the work that Amy Dain at the Boston Indicators project has been doing for many years on the deeply exclusionary effects this phenomenon has had in the Boston region and the large share of responsibility it bears for the accompanying housing crisis. The Mayor has long been explicit about her concerns that so much of what actually gets built or expanded in this city goes through a discretionary, politically-driven zoning relief process, particularly before the Board of Appeal. She is hardly the first person to recognize and point this out, but she is the first mayor I’ve seen since I moved to Roslindale almost 24 years ago who is trying to do something about it. This is a problem that affects every part of the code. It’s why so much of what local neighborhood groups discuss has to do with all manner of development proposals ranging from a new multifamily building replacing a largely defunct row of single-story retail down the street to an expansion of their across-the-street neighbor’s house to add a modest amount of living space in their attic. I directly lived through and supported both of these examples in my own neighborhood. Most everyone knows that this is no way to run development review in 2024. But it’s still the day-to-day reality, even as Squares + Streets is the first meaningful attempt being made by the city to move away from this in a serious way on what many think is a sensible place to start – allowing multifamily residential above ground floor commercial/retail uses “as-of-right” in our city’s neighborhood centers without forcing the developers of that housing to engage in a lengthy, costly, and risky discretionary review process to do what we say we want them to do. This puts a significant amount of pressure on getting not only the zoning but also the full suite of implementation components of the small area planning process right.

All of the foregoing said, it’s worth reiterating the concerns and objectives that the WalkUP Roslindale comment and support letter from late January raised. The full letter can be reviewed here, but if anyone wants to know where we’re coming from as we take part in the Roslindale Squares + Streets process, the key concepts are as follows:

  • Utilize Objective Criteria. BPDA staff must use objective criteria to map out the small area plans for Roslindale Square and other neighborhood centers. These criteria should include, but not necessarily be limited to: proximity to transit (both rail and bus), walkability, existing conditions, and anticipation of growth. It is crucial that easily understandable and transparent criteria are utilized to plan and zone these small plan areas to create the conditions for future growth and enhanced density and walkability.
  • Limit Conditional Uses. We recommend that the BPDA reduce the number of conditional uses imposed throughout the new, proposed zoning. While conditional uses have a place in some situations, the proposed zoning can and should go further to make many of these conditional uses allowed by right. We know from experience in Roslindale that conditional uses can bog down applicants and small business owners in unnecessary bureaucracy that delay new housing and new businesses and raise the associated costs.
  • Use Existing Conditions as the Floor. In Roslindale, the vast majority of lots are existing non-conforming. That is to say, the lots were initially developed with small lot sizes, minimal setbacks, and similar characteristics, but made retroactively nonconforming by later downzoning. This situation means almost any development, whether new construction or simple exterior renovations, will require zoning variances. At a minimum, the new zoning should restore existing lots to legal status and remove the requirement of variances to do basic work and simple additions to them. [SPECIFIC MJL NOTE: It is worth pausing on this point, which has been raised above as well. It has been a curious, but entirely consistent feature of zoning in Boston for several decades that almost everything is zoned for something other than what it actually is on the ground. As just on example, my house sits on a 4400 square foot lot in a 2F-5000 residential zoning district on which the first permitted unit requires at least 5000 SF of lot area. In other words, in a fit of what can only be described as bizarre self-loathing, the city saw fit, in 2008 mind you, to zone my property and the property of almost all of my neighbors (whose lots are also less than 5000 SF in area) as non-conforming. In other other words, our current zoning almost uniformly acts like what we have today, in the neighborhood we all say we love, is wrong and not acceptable. I am not exaggerating.]
  • Address Displacement. Displacement is inevitably most prevalent when the status quo is maintained. If no new residential or commercial space is built, steadily increasing demand for both guarantees that residents (renters, aspiring homeowners, and business owners) will be priced out. That said, changes that increase permissible commercial and residential density will result in new construction and potentially higher rents if anti-displacement measures are not considered from the outset. We encourage the BPDA to proactively plan for this in small plan areas under the new zoning and create incentives for existing property owners to keep rents reasonable through property tax abatements and other measures, such as providing current commercial tenants the right of first refusal to return to the space at issue.
  • Engage All Stakeholders. As an organization of neighborhood residents and local business owners, we firmly believe in public feedback and input into planning and zoning decision-making. At the same time, we know that no one group, including our own, can speak for an entire neighborhood, never mind an entire city. We have been impressed by the outreach conducted by BPDA staff to date and urge its continuation as the process moves forward from adopting the proposed set of floating zones to undertaking the small area plans. It is crucial that staff continue to actively reach out to stakeholders where they are. It is well documented that evening meetings are difficult for individuals with small children, evening jobs, and other life commitments to attend, for example. We hope to continue to see opportunities for feedback at pop up events, the Roslindale Farmers’ Markets,  on transit platforms and bus stops, and at community activities where people naturally congregate and deserve an opportunity to be heard.

Upcoming Squares + Streets Meeting – Hybrid in Spanish – 27 March 2024 @ 6 pm – Menino Center (125 Brookway Rd, Archdale)

From the most recent email communication circulated by BPDA on the meeting schedule for Squares + Streets in Roslindale:

La agencia de planificación y desarrollo de Boston organizará una reunión híbrida de Plazas + Calles en español para revisar los objetivos del proyecto, el cronograma del proceso de planificación y participación, y resaltar las oportunidades para participar. Se proporcionarán servicios de traducción para inglés y criollo haitiano. Se ofrecerán refrigerios ligeros y cuidado de niños por orden de llegada.

The BPDA will be hosting a hybrid Spanish language Squares + Streets meeting to review the project goals, the timeline of the planning and engagement process, and highlight opportunities to be involved.

Translation services for English and Haitian Creole will be provided. Light refreshments and childcare will be offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.

NOTE: This meeting will replace the previously scheduled zoning workshop on this date. The BPDA will be leading the first  zoning workshop after the proposed Squares + Streets zoning districts are approved by the Zoning Commission on April 17th. This vote will allow the proposed 6 zoning districts to be put into the zoning code as options to be mapped at a later date during the Roslindale Square Squares + Streets engagement process.

How to Participate

Please register in advance
Join us via Zoom

First Annual AHMA-WUR Meetup – 28 March 2024 – 6 pm at the Substation

Abundant Housing Massachusetts (AHMA) and WalkUP Roslindale (WUR) are officially inviting their members and supporters to meet up at the Substation (Upstairs) (corner of Cummins and Washington in the Square) on the evening of Thursday, 28 March 2024, at 6 pm. Come on down and get to know your fellow pro-housing, pro-walk, -bike, and -transit advocates!

Sign up link is HERE.

Empty Bowls (Anti-Hunger Fundraising Event) This Sunday, March 24, 3pm-7pm at the Substation

We’d like to take this opportunity to promote the annual “Empty Bowls” event, this Sunday, March 24, from 3pm-7pm at the Roslindale Substation. All proceeds go to local food banks. Come for live music, friends, delicious soup, and take home a handmade bowl. You can also purchase a craft beer from 67 Degrees Brewing.  The Boston Latin School  Jazz Combo will begin at 3 pm, Bookmatch Ramblers starting at 4pm, and a classical music jam session hosted by Boston Public Quartet starting at 5 pm. Advance tickets and more details are available at this event page. Please spread the word!
Empty Bowls Flyer

UPDATE: Partial Orange Line Shutdown Incoming – Monday through Thursday – 18 to 21 March 2024 PLUS BostonBikes Convoy

Image courtesy Streetsblog MASS and MBTA.

In contrast to the full shutdown back in 2022 that, in hindsight, was sadly much less than met the eye, the MBTA are doing a partial shutdown of the line from Jackson Square to North Station for the next four days – Monday through Thursday, the 18th through the 21st of March 2024. Our friends over at Streetsblog MASS have the details, emphasizing that this is part of the ongoing, largely successful thus far, year-long effort to eliminate all slow zones on the core rail transit system. The major highlights are as follows:

  • There will be free shuttle bus service that will make stops at all of the stations between Jackson Square and Back Bay, so that riders can take the Commuter Rail toward South Station.
  • Shuttles will also stop at Copley station so that riders can take the Green Line toward North Station.
  • The fare gates will be open at both Jackson Square and Back Bay stations, signifying free fare. There will also be free fares at Copley station heading inbound/eastbound.
  • The Commuter Rail will be free between Forest Hills, Ruggles, Back Bay, and South Station.
  • Plan extra time in commutes to anticipate longer than normal wait times for trains.

We’ve bolded the free Commuter Rail option because Ruggles is ideally situated right in the middle of the shuttle portion of the closure and it’ll be a free ride from Forest Hills all the way into South Station for the period of the shutdown. That really looks like the best overall alternative transit-based travel option. We also want to note that Boston Bikes have been leading bike commuting convoys on the Mondays of this month, starting at 8:00 am at Adams Park in Roslindale Square with stops at Green Street (8:20 am) and Jackson Square (8:30 am) before ending at City Hall Plaza. The return trip in the afternoon starts at 5:15 pm from City Hall Plaza and retraces the morning’s inbound route in reverse. So, see you all there at 8:00 am tomorrow at Adams Park and we’ll see if we can get Boston Bikes to sponsor convoys for the following 3 days of the shutdown. Stay tuned! UPDATE: Boston Bikes have agreed to lead the convoy again tomorrow, Tuesday the 19th, but that will be it for this week.



Bussey Street Renaming Initiative – Community Input Solicited

Along with a group of neighborhood residents and stakeholders, WalkUP Roslindale Board member Steve Gag has been involved over the last several months in a meaningful initiative to change the name of Bussey Street, the street that bisects the Arnold Arboretum, to honor an individual worthy of recognition in accord with the present-day values of the Jamaica Plain and Roslindale communities. That group is now seeking broader community input on potential new names for the street that will provide valuable information and advice to the two street abutters – the Arboretum/Harvard and the Parks Department/City of Boston – who are empowered to make the formal request for the name change.

We hope that folks will read this document from the initiative that provides more background on what this is all about, along with biographies of the five potential new names for the street, and will submit input by rating each of the candidates. In the document is a link to the form to fill out and submit a rating. Respondents have until April 27 to submit the form.

Finally, there will be a virtual community meeting on the evening of April 11 to learn more about the candidates and the renaming process.  The linked document includes a contact email address for those interested in attending the meeting.

Opening for Office of Neighborhood Services Roslindale Liaison

In the wake of Enrique Pepén moving from his position as Head of the Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) to serve as our District 5 City Councilor, our Roslindale rep Dianna Bronchuk followed to serve as his Chief of Staff, leaving the ONS position vacant for now. We encourage anyone interested in neighborhood improvement to consider applying for the position:

The Neighborhood Liaison reports to a Deputy Director in the Office of Neighborhood Services and is the principal representative of the Mayor in their assigned neighborhood. The Neighborhood Liaison’s primary responsibilities are: (1) performing excellent constituent services, (2) building strong relationships with key neighborhood leaders, (3) detecting and elevating key areas of growing concerns in their assigned neighborhood, (4) conducting community engagement on key Mayoral initiatives, and (5) supporting constituents during periodic emergency responses (i.e. fires, water breaks, etc.).

Application and more details available at the Boston Career Center.

Squares + Streets Small Area Planning Process for Roslindale Square Starts in Earnest – Office Hours and Visioning Session – 13 March 2024

Following the kickoff meeting for Squares + Streets here in Roslindale held on the 24th of last month, the first of the many outreach and input opportunities that will help to define the community vision on which the plan will be built will happen this Wednesday, 13 March 2024, in two parts:

  1. Office hours with BPDA Planning staff at the WorkHub space (downstairs at the Substation, corner of Cummins and Washington) from 10 am to 12 pm and 1 pm to 3 pm (pre-registration recommended); and
  2. Roslindale Square Housing and Small Business Visioning Workshop – Roslindale Community Center (the other corner of Cummins and Washington) from 6 pm to 7:30 pm. The BPDA describes this objectives of this session as follows:

“At this event, community members can learn more about current tools the City has to create and preserve housing and support small businesses, how the Squares + Streets Small Area Plan can address current housing and small business challenges in Roslindale, and envision through hands-on activities what Roslindale Square might need for the future to support diverse households and businesses.” [NOTE: Translation services will be available in Spanish and Haitian Creole.]

The small area planning process is upon us. We applaud the BPDA on providing different formats for public input, including on-site office hours, from the outset. Let’s get out there and participate in whatever format makes sense for each of us.