New South Boston zoning could mean more parking and slow down development
South Boston rarely takes kindly to change, no matter how well-intentioned. Think about the short-lived wine bar off Perkins Square, or the fleeting attempt to adopt one-way streets.
But City Hall recently adopted a major change that even hidebound residents might embrace: new zoning regulations that will affect virtually the entire neighborhood, from the yuppies on A Street to the senior citizens in City Point.
The rules are an attempt to restore order to a booming neighborhood that can feel like a giant construction site, and a sense of fairness to a development and permitting process often shaped by influence and special exemptions.
Proponents hope the code changes, which took effect last month, will bring a steep decline in variances granted by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, and the community meetings, politically connected consultants, and development lawyers that usually come with them.
Sharply curbing variances, which are exceptions to the zoning code, would also eliminate a bureaucratic bottleneck in the permitting process that, as the Globe has reported, can be exploited by developers, civic associations, neighbors, and organized labor.
“All of that will be diminished,” said City Councilor Bill Linehan, who helped spearhead the two-year reform effort, which included a dozen community meetings. “It will be a much more even playing field for all neighbors and all residents. . . . The amount of time and energy that government and the community had to spend regulating property development was absurd.”
The new rules are not without controversy. Developers will now be required to build two-thirds more off-street parking than before, a mandate that runs counter to a prevailing urban planning model to reduce cars in favor of cycling and public transit.
“They should be reducing these parking minimums,” said Brendan Kearney, communications manager for the pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston. “The city of Buffalo just removed parking requirements entirely. You don’t think of Buffalo as a paragon of forward urban thinking, but if Buffalo can do it, why not Boston?”
The new parking requirements will also increase building costs, making some projects prohibitively expensive. That could slow the pace of construction in what has been the hottest neighborhood in Boston’s building boom.
“I’ve been told by developers that it will slow down the development in South Boston, which is probably a good thing because we are getting oversaturated,” said Joanne McDevitt, president of the City Point Neighborhood Association. “But I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem of parking.”
For the regulations to have an effect, they must be strictly enforced, meaning the Zoning Board of Appeals will have to issue far fewer variances.
“That is the question,” said Donna Brown, executive director of the South Boston Neighborhood Development Corp., an affordable housing nonprofit. “Will the ZBA decline requests for variances? Will the [Boston Planning & Development Agency] recommend against requests for variances when people apply?”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh indicated that City Hall will take a hard line to enforce the new zoning. In a statement, Walsh’s office said it was “unlikely to speak in support of requests for variances before the Zoning Board of Appeals in order to allow the zoning to mature and have the intended impact on the neighborhood.”
By slowing development, the new zoning bylaws could also create more affordable housing, supporters say.
Many senior citizens and other longtime residents have been pushed out of their homes in recent years as developers buy three-story apartment houses to convert them into luxury condominiums. Because of soaring real estate prices, the development corporation has not been able to buy a building since 2011, Brown said.
“If the parking requirement results in a softening of the triple-decker market, that would make it easier for us as a nonprofit to purchase a building and keep it as an affordable or moderate priced rental,” Brown said. “We want to keep people in their housing.”
Kvetching about parking is a popular pastime in South Boston. An influx of new residents, many of them young professionals, has increased the number of cars competing for on-street spots, and longtime residents have been clamoring for a fix.
Under the new zoning rules, each new unit must come with 1.5 parking spots, up from 0.9 spaces. Because parking requirements are always rounded up, a new building with three two-bedroom apartments must include five parking spots. (Studio and one-bedroom units need only one space.)
Like all zoning rules, there are caveats. The requirements only apply to new construction or projects that involve a major change, such as adding a unit. The rules do not apply to standard renovations.
The regulations also allow a new maximum height of 40 feet for much of the neighborhood, compared with 35 to 50 feet under the old system.
Officials at the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which reviews larger projects, said the new regulations will help preserve the neighborhood’s character while accommodating new growth.
The agency’s community affairs liaison, Mark McGonagle, said the changes seek to shape the neighborhood’s future on a broad scale to “get away from what many in the community termed parcel by parcel development.”
The rezoning joins another effort in South Boston that designates the Dorchester Avenue corridor as a transit-oriented growth zone. That process, although not finalized, could result in reduced parking requirements for developments near subway stations and buildings as tall as 300 feet in certain locations.
The overall goal is simple.
“The rezoning of South Boston is designed to restore predictability to the process so that the rules are understood and fairly applied to all,” said City Councilor Michael F. Flaherty of South Boston, who pushed for the new regulations. “Our hope is to eliminate the need for variances, the guessing game, and the hocus pocus that plays out at the Zoning Board of Appeals.”