Standing on Lincoln Street in Allston-Brighton, near a bridge that runs over the Massachusetts Turnpike, one can see both the neighborhood’s past and its future.
To one side of the Pike stands Boston Landing, a gleaming campus of sport and industry, the bright red New Balance logo popping against a glass façade; next door, a crane and hard-hatted workers overlook what will be 165 apartments, the first phase of a big redo of an old Stop & Shop.
Across the Pike, it’s another world entirely. Immediately facing the Boston Landing campus is the stark glass-and-metal grid of the long-empty Boston Tech Center, a white elephant that’s finally set for a major redevelopment after sitting vacant for decades. An overgrown surface parking lot stands behind a rusted black wrought-iron fence, ivy and dead branches weaving among its concrete columns.
But soon, that old side of the Pike will look a lot more like the new, and the city is wrapping up a plan that will spell out the details of how.
The Boston Tech Center sits along the far edge of a new zoning plan that the Boston Planning & Development Agency is set to vote on this week. The Western Avenue Corridor Study and Rezoning plan — which covers a stretch along Western Avenue and Soldiers Field Road and along Everett Street toward the Pike — outlines goals for growth in what is already one of the fastest-changing corners of the city. Indeed, the new plan follows a number of large-scale developments that are already in the works, and estimates the area could see up to 6 million to 7 million square feet of new construction in all.
At the tech center, developer Berkeley Investments has for years planned a three-building lab and residential campus. Down Soldiers Field Road, National Development and Mount Vernon Co. are planning labs and office space at the site of WBZ’s studios. The Davis Cos. is proposing a residential project at the former Skating Club of Boston. And developer King Street Properties has already started work on a lab and residential campus at 280 Western Ave. All told, those projects would bring some 2.2 million square feet of new space to a corridor that’s full of homes, brick offices, low-slung auto shops, and strip malls — along with a number of colorful murals and art installations, a podcast garage, and Pavement Coffeehouse.
The Western Avenue plan is meant to work as a guide both for existing projects the BPDA is considering and for future development, BPDA director and chief planner Arthur Jemison said at a community meeting last month. The goal is to create a reliable framework that both residents and developers can rely on to understand what comes next in the neighborhood — something that can both reduce anxiety and spare all involved from myriad public meetings.
The plan, Jemison said, will also build on lengthy conversations the city, neighborhood, and developers have had around Harvard’s Enterprise Research Campus, a massive project being planned on university-owned land toward the eastern end of Western Avenue, near the Charles River. In one of her first major moves on the development front, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu this summer brokered a deal with neighborhood groups that enabled Harvard and developer Tishman Speyer to move forward with the ERC’s 900,000-square-foot first phase.
As written, the plan recommends allowing multifamily housing — which current zoning does not permit — throughout the entire study area, along with pockets of commercial and lab buildings. Developers can build taller, denser buildings if they agree to add more affordable housing, especially in the areas that would allow commercial and lab projects. Labs, with their tall mechanical penthouses, could reach up to 185 feet in some spots.
If approved by the BPDA and then the Zoning Commission, the Western Avenue plan would be the first of the neighborhood-focused plans — which launched in 2016 under then-mayor Martin J. Walsh amid his bid to revamp what was then the Boston Redevelopment Authority — that the BPDA would actually write into city zoning. The BPDA in 2016 and 2017 approved neighborhood plans for South Boston and parts of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, but never took those plans to the Zoning Commission.
This hasn’t slowed development along the stretch of Dorchester Avenue in South Boston between the Broadway and Andrew stations — the focus of one of the plans — where some 17 projects have been pitched, approved, or completed, with more on the way.
In Jamaica Plain, it’s a different story. The neighborhood plan, called PLAN: JP/Rox, took years to negotiate, with raucous protests, and some neighbors camping outside City Hall ahead of the BPDA vote, demanding deeper affordable housing requirements. But without a changed zoning code, developments that followed its guidelines became more vulnerable to lawsuits from neighbors challenging variances from the neighborhood’s previous zoning scheme.
In the years since, at least three lawsuits have been filed against projects within the JP/Rox area, which stretches from Egleston Square to Forest Hills, including the proposed new headquarters of Youth Enrichment Services and accompanying housing, a 39-unit senior citizen housing project, and the Pine Street Inn’s largest permanent supportive housing development for formerly homeless people.
Still, more plans are coming.
The BPDA intends to reengage neighbors on both PLAN: South Boston Dot Ave and PLAN: JP/Rox, though the agency declined to share details on how. It’s also restarted work on neighborhood plans in East Boston and Charlestown. A draft plan for Mattapan was released last week, and the agency is also launching PLAN: Newmarket to “develop a vision for an equitable industrial neighborhood of the future.”
As for Western Avenue, some neighborhood representatives are glad the plan is moving forward — but note it doesn’t quite align with traffic plans outlined by the state Department of Conservation & Recreation. The Western Avenue plan calls for short-term plans of “low-stress separated bike lanes and bus queue jumps,” along with sidewalk improvements. Long-term it envisions a “transitway” that would allow two-way traffic for transit vehicles, school buses, and emergency vehicles — but one-way traffic along certain parts of Western Avenue.
Those transit plans may be long in coming, but the new construction — years in the making — is approaching fast. Anthony D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, noted there’s only so much a plan can manage when there’s already so much development in the works.
“How much of an impact could a master plan for Allston-Brighton have when we’ve already gotten out of the gate?” D’Isidoro said. “You look at any of these major projects . . . the snowball is already going down the hill.”