Boston’s housing push faces an obstacle: Boston itself
If developer Jacqueline Nunez wanted to build about eight or nine standard-issue single-family homes on the 2 acres that she bought on the border of Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, she could do so under existing zoning, and with a minimum of fuss. Instead, the Dorchester developer is proposing something far more ambitious at 64 Allandale St.: a state-of-the-art 20-unit project with townhouses designed to consume no more energy than they produce.
The project, to be built next to the protected Allandale Woods Urban Wild on a parcel that now contains just one large home, would further the city’s goals of adding housing to accommodate a growing population and answering the challenges of global warming. Yet some nearby residents, along with advocates for Allandale Woods, are opposing Nunez’s plan.
The dispute hints at just how hard it will be to meet Mayor Marty Walsh’s goal of 53,000 new housing units by 2030. While the goal itself hasn’t been controversial, Boston lacks the zoning, the planning process, and the sense of civic urgency that are necessary to make Walsh’s ambition a reality.
The critics of 64 Allandale St. bring up concerns — fears of density, degraded views, infringements on open space, and added traffic — that arise on many other projects in the Greater Boston area. While Nunez’s project would include many more units per acre than some residential developments close by, people walking through the woods are unlikely to find the new buildings any more obtrusive than the vast senior housing complex just a stone’s throw away.
Situated on a south-facing slope, the project is being billed as the city’s first net-zero-energy neighborhood — thickly insulated walls would minimize the townhomes’ energy consumption even in cold weather, while rooftop solar panels would generate electricity — and would be fortified to withstand extreme weather conditions in a future era of climate change. To plan the project, Nunez hired a top-notch local architect, Elizabeth Whittaker, and an award-winning landscape-design firm.
If this is mere “green-washing,” as some opponents charge, it’s an unusually expensive and elaborate ruse.
Opponents of Nunez’s project have raised some legitimate issues. At their urging, the Boston Conservation Commission reviewed the area and concluded that a nearby wetland comes closer to her property than her consultant had calculated. The state Department of Environmental Protection recently upheld that judgment, which will likely require adjustments in one corner of the property. Meanwhile, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has asked specific questions about water flow down the slope toward the wetland — a concern Nunez’s designers can seek to address.
Yet the biggest issue is, in the end, a gut judgment. Opponents’ fundamental complaint is that intensive development on private land next to a protected area would irreparably harm the woods. “Housing has social value to the city, and green housing does too,” says Marc Lavine, a cofounder of Friends of Allandale Woods. “But surely there’s a way to have that happen that doesn’t impact rare and sensitive open space.”
Then again, the essence of an “urban wild” is the juxtaposition of nature and the human environment. “I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea,” says Nunez, “that you shouldn’t have to look at buildings in Boston.”
At the moment, the Walsh administration is adapting a pro-growth message to neighborhoods that are instinctively skeptical of development — or at least of developers. “Growth is essential to becoming more inclusive,” declares one of the guiding principles of Imagine Boston 2030, the mayor’s master planning effort.
The slogan has the benefit of being true. One-percenters can always find somewhere to live, whether it’s a new net-zero condo or an old brownstone that might otherwise house people of modest means. One key way to prevent displacement of low-income families is to give would-be gentrifiers somewhere else to go.
Walsh’s plan emphasizes construction around major transit hubs, but getting anywhere close to 53,000 housing units built will require many locations of all sorts. While doubling the number of units allowed on two acres along Allandale Street will have a negligible effect on housing prices in Boston, denser redevelopment of parcels all around the city will make an enormous difference.
Current zoning on the Allandale site dates back to 1993 — recently enough that longtime residents remember all the time-consuming negotiations that went into the rules, but far enough in the past to reflect the influence of suburban-style planning.
Even as Boston gained about 67,000 residents since 2000, the city’s zoning has failed to catch up. During a mayorship that lasted a generation, Tom Menino maintained restrictive rules but made liberal use of zoning variances — an approach that turned building projects into opportunities to extract community benefits from developers. This approach annoys neighbors who see developers and City Hall cutting deals behind the scenes, even as the complexity and arbitrariness of the process discourages housing construction that Boston needs.
At a certain point, the problem becomes self-reinforcing. As housing prices soar, and as the cost to develop a 1,000-square-foot apartment in a conventional five-story building approaches $400,000, the high price tags for new units become yet another argument against building them. (Net-zero construction is still more expensive, according Nunez, whose 20-unit project will cost about $20 million. This budget suggests, opponents are quick to point out, that the average unit will sell for over $1 million.)
Opponents of the Allandale project maintain they they’re not just engaging in NIMBYism. “If it was the same plan for environmentally sound construction in a proper place, not where I felt it would do real damage to this unique environment, I would be all for it,” says Will Holton, a retired sociology professor who lives near the Allandale site.
But if the ideal property doesn’t come on the market, then what? In an urban environment that’s evolved over the course of nearly 400 years, most alternative sites for any housing development have histories, environmental sensitivities, and worried neighbors of their own. Boston and its surrounding communities will never slow the increase in rents and mortgage payments unless they find a way — even when it’s tough — to say yes to more housing.