The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) Board voted 4-0 on Thursday night to approve Trinity Financial’s 72-unit affordable rental housing project on the Fitzpatrick Brothers Auto Body site next to Shawmut MBTA station. The unanimous decision to green-light the project came after several years of vigorous opposition from some neighbors and abutters and after concessions from the Trinity team, including downsizing the number of units from its original scale.
The vote came after a 90-minute public hearing in which 27 people testified on the project – 16 in favor and 11 opposed. State Rep. Russell Holmes – who was in favor - was the only elected official to weigh-in with live comments. Councillor Frank Baker supported the project in writing.
“You delivered us a project that is aligned with our values and goals of affordability and resiliency and equity,” said Priscilla Rojas, the BPDA Board Chair who lives in Mattapan.
“It’s transit-oriented development building density around nodes of transportation,” she continued. “I only hope our neighboring municipalities and cities and towns would do the same, but here in Boston that’s how we do it. I do acknowledge and am empathetic to the opposition and the changes this community will be experiencing…I would have preferred greater density but understand the complexities around this project.”
Trinity’s project manager Michael Lozano noted that the project has been modified many times through the process, most recently adding 25 underground parking spaces after eliminating all parking earlier this year at the request of city planners.
“This project has been a long, long time in the making, and we have had dozens of meetings,” Lozano said. “We have met with hundreds of neighbors and stakeholders in kitchens and on doorsteps and in other places. This process has made for a better project…I am happy where we have landed.”
The project has been wrought with raw controversy, sharp personalities, and – at times— acrimony.
“It’s gotten really kind of vicious in the neighborhood,” said neighbor Mercedes Tompkins, who spoke up against the project. “The long-time neighbors have been through thick and thin and keeping the neighborhood together in tough times.”
Those in opposition have organized under the name “Build Together: Shawmut,” advancing the idea of allowing a smaller development via an expansion by the abutting Epiphany School. They placed scores of lawn signs throughout the neighborhood and gathered more than 1,000 signatures in support of the Epiphany “alternative” – even though Epiphany has no ownership rights to the property.
On the affirmative side, other neighbors stressed that building high-density with little or no parking right next to a Red Line station makes sense. With the housing crisis amplified in Boston now, that was a key reason supporters called for approval of the development – uniting under the group ‘Dorchester Growing Together’ and harnessed social media channels to promote their position.
Holmes said he supported the project and helped to restore the 25 parking spaces as a compromise to get it over the finish line. He said it made sense to build such a development near a train station, but he also said the two sides were just not able to come together.
“You can’t force people to marry that don’t want to marry,” he said. “I tried to bring people together to form a cohesive agreement and they couldn’t.”
That division was evident in some of the testimony that preceded the board vote.
“(Our family) is in strong opposition of this project and those that said the developer spoke with abutters is not correct," said Tiffany Caballero, speaking for her family that lives abutting on Allston Street. “This process has been one where they just checked it off.”
Said Impact Advisory Group (IAG) member Nevin Lorden in strong support: “If we can’t build something like this here, then where can we?”
Abutter Andrew Saxe said after the meeting the project was bad design, bad planning, and bad social policy.
“This is a 72-unit building on a lot zoned for eight units that will prevent an admired school from expanding into its own adjoining property,” he said, referring to Epiphany. “It offers no path to ownership for working families. One thousand residents and three neighborhood associations have said they do not want it.”
Rev. John Finley, head of Epiphany School, also noted they were opposed to the project as well.
“This proposal is not supported by any abutter or any of the three neighborhood associations,” he added.
Yet, there were people from the surrounding streets who said it is nearly impossible for many people to live affordably in Dorchester, and noted such developments can keep friends and family close.
Lara Shkordoff, of the St. Mark’s area, said her family rented in the area, and was lucky to be able to buy a home. Other renters have not been so fortunate, she said.
““If anything, I wish this was bigger,” she said. “We were barely able to stay. Friends are leaving.”
Joe Levinger, a neighbor who was opposed to the project, indicated that the BPDA’s approval may not be final word on the project’s fate.
“I urge the BPDA not to approve this project and if it is approved there will be lawsuits brought to prevent this from moving forward,” he said.
He added after the meeting: “I am not discouraged; since the code violations surrounding this project are numerous, there is always the possibility, however remote, that the project will be blocked by the ZBA. And if the ZBA signs off as well, we will seek remedy in the courts. This is not a threat; it is a promise.”
One question posed by the BPDA Board was about why the project was fully rental and not affordable homeownership, as many projects have pivoted to in the area. It was also a sticking point with the opposition, who preferred an affordable homeownership project.
Lozano said they explored it but couldn’t make it work financially.
“Working with the neighbors and the community, as the project got smaller, it became financially infeasible to do a project with homeownership,” he said.
The project originally had 90 units of housing, and 48 parking spaces in a five-story building and was changed several times over the last two years.
Trinity filed for a 121A process in September. According to the BPDA website, 121A projects are granted to generate economic advancement to areas that are blighted. In return, the city, BPDA and state deliver a “streamlined regulatory process and a negotiated alternative tax payment in lieu of real and personal property taxes.” That process will continue to be worked out between Trinity and the BPDA in the coming months.
•Trinity Financial’s Centre Street project was not the only major decision made by the BPDA Board on Thursday. A massive re-development planned on what are now empty parking lots at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown was also on the docket. The BPDA Board designated Trinity as the official developer to build 686 units of affordable and market rate housing – rental and homeownership – on several acres of open land owned by the BPDA. That project includes two phases over eight years, if all goes well, and includes amenities like youth sports playing fields and an outdoor arts common.
•The BPDA approved two new projects in the Grove Hall area on Thursday as well. A new 14-unit homeownership project with two affordable homeownership units was approved for 427 Quincy St. in a 4-0 vote. Twelve of the units will be market rate, but two will be affordable for those 80-100% of AMI. On 88 Geneva Ave., across from the Jeremiah Burke High School, a new 36-unit homeownership building was approved 4-0. That one includes six affordable homeownership units in a five-story building that will feature a ground floor café space. There are 24 parking spaces included on the site and a new sidewalk connection to Oldfields Road.
•On Meetinghouse Hill, a long-time proposal was approved at 29 High St. down the hill from First Parish Church. That project has already demolished an older home that sat on the lot, and now has approval to proceed with a new 31-unit, three-story, homeownership building with five affordable units (one at 50% AMI and one at 60% AMI). There are 23 underground parking spaces included on site.