Neighbors wary of new plans for apartments on Old Colony site

The northern 5-story building, left, and the U-shaped building proposed for the Old Colony site at 780 Morrissey Blvd. are shown in an architect rendering.

The development team hoping to transform the former Phillips Old Colony House on Morrissey Boulevard into a 219-unit apartment complex unveiled their latest proposal to a largely unreceptive group of neighbors via Zoom last Thursday evening.

The acre-and-a-half site at 780 Morrissey Blvd., once home to the popular dining and function hall that closed in 2017, is now being used by a neighboring car dealership as a storage area for its vehicles.

The parcel is owned by Phillips Family Properties, which also controls Boston Bowl, Phillips Candy House, Ramada Inn, and Comfort Inn among its Dorchester holdings. Phillips Family Properties partnered with the national developers the Michaels Organization and Cube 3 Studio Architects to commission the project.

Jay Russo, vice president of development at Michaels, said the team amended its most recent proposal — last aired during a virtual meeting in August —to try to address some of the concerns raised by critics. However, much of the criticism raised in the last meeting came up again on Thursday night.

The current plan calls for two buildings— five and six stories in height— with a roof deck, dog spa, and 136 parking spaces. The proposal once again received vigorous push-back from many of the 27 people on the call who complained about a lack of affordability, flooding, access to the sea, and traffic.

In response, John Harding, a senior associate principal at Cube 3, said that through coordination with the Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC), the team altered its plans to answer the criticism.

“We’ve been able to make some pretty significant changes to the project that we think are hitting on all of the goals of the project— creating a better response to the site, and better public open space and benefits,” he said.

Developers increased the number of units in the latest proposal— up from the previous iteration’s figure of 206— but kept the amount of parking spaces the same. They increased the square-footage of open space for both residents and the public to include 18,800 and 14,200 square feet for those groups, respectively.

The new proposal also features a design element that Harding said breaks the larger of the two buildings proposed “into more manageable massing sizes.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the [design commission board] and this is the direction that they’re encouraging us to proceed with,” Harding explained. “We still have two heights. The northern building still has a longer footprint and will be 5 stories; the 6-story building is still in a U-shape, but the edges now splay open to increase the views out to the ocean.”

The project’s proponents say that it would enhance a state-led plan to create a multi-use path that would begin at Malibu Beach and end at Conley Street, providing a connection through Victory Road and Tenean Street.

“The park that we were considering to be one of our biggest benefits was seen as underwhelming, so we listened and tried to re-think it. We centered that around the future bicycle path connection,” said Harding. “We’ve located better public space and more residential open space up on the eastern facing courtyard that has views over the future DCR multi-use path.”

He added that the team is open to suggestions for local merchants, in their pop-up park, which will be used for “active events on a really high profile piece of property.”

He also noted that the team will make a $100,000 dollar contribution to the city’s Climate Ready Boston Fund, which will be allocated to the design efforts for Tenean Beach and Conley Street, specifically to a deployable gate outlined in current city plans.

The bulk of the two hour-long meeting was dominated by residents who spoke in opposition. Maria Lyons, a Port Norfolk resident and a member of an Impact Advisory Group for the project, led the charge.

“The mass and heights of this building are going to be creating a wall between Dorchester, Neponset, and the waterfront— worse than the expressway that’s there already,” she said.

“The design and the area keeps being referred to as ‘urban’ and in Dorchester we consider this as a coastal area,” she added. “I don’t understand why the BPDA and BCDC is considering it that way when DCR and Climate Ready Boston are promoting changes in the area to become a more natural, coastal area.”

Mark McGonagle, director of community affairs at the BPDA, explained that the project’s proposed height and density are actually exactly what the BPDA is looking for in an area similar to that of 780 Morrissey.

“We often look for the first row of development that goes up against hard infrastructure like, in this case, a highway to be at least medium in terms of height and density because we try to block things like noise, etc., from that highway,” he said.

Vivian Ortiz, a Mattapan resident and member of the Neponset River Greenway Council, said that the portion of the path along Freeport Street mentioned by the developers was “going to be built a long time before this project,” and that it would be not only a recreational path, but one used by pedestrians and bikers.

Said Stephen Harvey, BPDA project manager, “This bike path will be key in the Neponset Greenway Trail and allow for the growth and expansion of that and that area will be much more activated with changes that DCR has thought of making.”

Robert Genduso, a Pope’s Hill resident, offered that the latest plan was an improvement over initial designs, but said he is concerned about how the pandemic could affect the project’s viability.

“The increase in occupancy is unfortunate, though,” he said. “I’m not going to belabor any of the points about height or density— most of us have come to grips that this is what the future is. But the city’s rental market has changed as a result of Covid. There’s a trend ongoing right now and that is that people are working from home. The city is already looking at 9 percent vacancies, and I worry about this plan in 3-5 years if this trend continues on.”

A few attendees were unhappy with the amount of parking, which is proposed at under a 1:1 ratio. Harvey replied that part of the city’s goals to support transit oriented and sustainable developments wouldn’t encourage a 1:1 parking ratio.

A couple of meeting members, Gady Eason and Raheem Shepard, spoke from their perspective as representatives of the local carpenter’s union, asking the developers to commit to contracting with the union if the project were to go forward.

Charles Cofield, a Dorchester resident, said the project “should be taken off the table. There are no true community benefits for this project, and it’s almost like it will be on its own little island and will feel completely different from the rest of the area.”

The project is currently under review by the BPDA, and more community input sessions will likely be scheduled.