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Housing plan brings growing pains to Jamaica Plain

Workers cleaned graffiti outside Boston City Hall Tuesday. Housing activists are protesting new development rules for a section of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Boston officials this week are set to approve new zoning rules for a section of Jamaica Plain from Egleston Square to Forest Hills, bringing new growth and affordable housing to a neighborhood that many residents say needs both.

Yet few seem very happy about it.

Developers and their allies worry that aggressive requirements for low-cost units make it too expensive to build, while a group of vocal protesters argue the opposite, that the city hasn’t gone far enough on affordable housing. Others in Jamaica Plain, where the planning process has stretched over almost two years and through countless public meetings, just want the whole thing finished.


The episode highlights how hard this sort of nitty-gritty planning can be in a fast-changing neighborhood where residents have long memories. It also highlights a tension being felt all over Greater Boston, between the need for more housing and the desire to preserve neighborhoods as they are.

“Big picture, this is a balancing act,” said Sara Myerson, head of planning at the Boston Planning & Development Agency. “We’re trying to add density, but not too much density, while adding housing at a range of income levels. There have been a lot of strong voices at the table.”

On the border between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury — or JP/ROX, as the planning agency has been calling it — the city aims to harness surging demand for housing by rezoning about 261 acres running along Washington Street to allow for much more.

The neighborhood is largely low-slung, light industry, and older, small-scale housing. A draft plan scheduled to be voted on Thursday would clear the way for larger buildings that would add about 2,500 apartments and condos — on top of 1,300 already permitted there — more than doubling the housing stock in the corridor today. The proposal would require that 40 percent of new units be priced at levels affordable to lower- and middle-income tenants.


The affordable housing requirement has emerged as the flashpoint. Developers fret it would eat into profits and discourage them from building more housing; activists say it doesn’t go nearly far enough, given the needs of the neighborhood and the incomes of people who live there.

Rents here have been rising rapidly — up 22 percent in Roxbury since 2014, and 15 percent in Jamaica Plain, according to city figures. There’s huge demand for affordable housing, said Richard Thal, chief executive of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp., which recently opened an affordable housing building on Amory Street.

“We had 3,200 households apply for 39 homes,” Thal said. “The need is mind-boggling.”

Dozens of community activists held an overnight vigil Monday and Tuesday on City Hall Plaza, pushing for tougher requirements and warning the proposed zoning plan would only hasten displacement from the neighborhood.

“Neighborhood by neighborhood, we see these developments that are prioritizing luxury housing,” said Lori Hurlebaus, who lives in a part of Dorchester that is undergoing a similar rezoning by City Hall. “It’s not housing that’s being developed to meet the needs of working people.”

Organizers said they hoped Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the planning agency would delay Thursday’s vote and write in more protections for working-class renters.

“We want to make sure that our city maintains its diversity,” said Danielle Sommer, an Egleston Square resident who helped organize the protest. “Cities need economic diversity in order to thrive.”


Vocal debate is the norm when it comes to civic matters in Jamaica Plain, where many older residents still remember fighting off the Southwest Corridor highway in the 1960s. Many of them still live here, along with a younger generation that’s keenly worried about being priced out of the neighborhood.

“This is a community that has a lot of passionate people, with deeply-held opinions,” Thal said. “The conversations were hard sometimes, but I think a lot of voices have been heard.”

But not every housing proposal needs to be a pitched battle, said Tim Reardon, a resident and board member of Egleston Square Main Street. He said the new zoning rules are still too restrictive and do not allow for bigger buildings that would add large blocs of affordable units.

“All we’ll see built is a small number of luxury condos,” Reardon said. “I would rather see some of this land go undeveloped for now than underdeveloped that way.”

Still, city officials say they’re happy with the finished product and they’ve learned lessons that will help in similar zoning plans they’re launching in parts of Roxbury and Dorchester, especially when it comes to engaging with residents.

In a small city that’s bursting at the seams, they need to find new places to build, with support by neighbors.

“We have to put growth somewhere, and we have to be responsible about it,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief. “This is exactly what we should be doing.”


The city has proposed rezoning 261 acres along Washington Street to allow for denser housing.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan. Shelby Grebbin can be reached at shelby.grebbin@globe.com.