To read a related story regarding Fort Point planning, click here.

To read a related story regarding Fort Point’s public realm plan, click here.

Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

The Boston Globe, June 15, 2005

Neighbors angry over Fort Point
Activists say city holding private talks with developers,
breaking vows on consistency and transparency in zoning

By Thomas C. Palmer Jr., Globe Staff

City of Boston officials have angered neighborhood groups in the emerging Fort Point Channel area near Gillette Co. by negotiating behind closed doors with four major developers on the size, height, and density of the big projects they want to build, and the makeup of the neighborhood surrounding them.

The negotiations -- with Gillette, Boston Wharf Co., the US Postal Service, and Beacon Capital Partners LLC -- run contrary to promises the city made five years ago to establish and abide by consistent zoning rules that allow public participation, community activists say.

''The community didn't have the opportunity to weigh in or comment," said Shirley Kressel, an urban planner and consistent critic of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which is striking an agreement with the companies on the broad shape of the 90-acre area.

''This is private zoning," she said. ''They arrange the character of the project, and they negotiate it out, and the community doesn't know any of that."

This kind of fight has played out before, most recently with the Residences at Kensington Place, in Chinatown.

By negotiating privately, city officials argue, they can wrest more goodies like parks and roads from developers, in exchange for allowing bigger, taller buildings. Neighborhood groups say the process allows developers to get way too much at the expense of people who already live in the area.

''It's just another way for them to avoid the public process," said Becky Dwyer, an artist who lives on A Street, the heart of the Fort Point area.

In Boston lingo, the city is using a ''planned development area" process, which allows the BRA more flexibility on matters like building heights when it negotiates with a developer.

There's a twist, though. In the Fort Point area, the city for the first time has proposed multiple planned development areas, plus an initial ''master plan" that lays the groundwork for them. The agreements with land owners secured in recent talks will be guaranteed through that master plan, providing enormous public benefits that regular zoning would not, said Kairos Shen, director of planning for the BRA.

City officials add that it's not a done deal. The master plan has yet to be approved by the Boston Zoning Commission, and that's when the public will get to comment.

Shen said that developers originally wanted to build out 8 million square feet in the area, but the city agreed to only six million. In exchange for a first phase of 4 million, and 2 million later, the city secured several acres of parks, millions of dollars in street improvements, and $1 million a year for maintenance of public spaces.

''They called them secret meetings -- we called them working with four major landowners and getting them to agree to things that are not necessarily in their best interest," said Susan Elsbree, a BRA spokeswoman.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday defended the agreement. One part of the deal, he said, was that the city won commitments from Gillette and the Postal Service to remain in the city with their thousands of employees.

Menino also said the process will finally get projects moving. ''The next phase after the agreement is to start the buildout," he said.

Menino said the city has listened to the community, which wanted more open space, and will provide 8.4 acres of parks, or about a quarter of the vacant areas remaining. He said the public review will continue.

''They will have a say in what goes on down there," Menino said, as each individual project is proposed in detail.

The maximum height the city tentatively negotiated with the developers is 200 feet. Asked whether any exceptions will be made, Menino initially said no. But then he added: ''If they want to go higher they'll have to pay a premium, but the premium is very extreme."

The city's pledge to set up zoning dates back to February 1999, when it was developing a vision for the South Boston Waterfront, with a lot of public input. Called the Seaport Public Realm Plan, it said, ''Once the land use and dimensional recommendations of this plan have been thoroughly reviewed by the public, a zoning amendment will be drafted."

Instead, it became clear over the last couple of years to residents like Steven Hollinger, cofounder of the Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design, that the more public process of establishing strict zoning rules was giving way to the planned development area process.

In the absence of new zoning rules based on the extensive goals outlined in the 1999 plan, Hollinger said, the community is presented with a ''Hobson's choice: Accept variances from existing zoning on a project-by-project basis, or you will be looking at parking lots for decades to come."

Urban planning specialists say Boston maintains considerably more zoning subjectivity -- city officials call it flexibility -- than most other cities. ''Boston is essentially an all-discretionary review process," Jerold S. Kayden, now a professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, said in 2003.

While developers are sometimes initially frustrated by the lack of established rules for their projects, some say planned development areas and similar tools have produced good results in a historic urban setting like Boston's, where strict zoning laws don't allow for desirable outcomes such as blocks with multiple uses.

Planned development areas ''provide more flexibility for public and private sectors to work to create the kind of unique places that make great cities tick," said Yanni Tsipis, vice president of Meredith & Grew Inc./Oncor, a real estate services firm.

Said Eric Kraus, vice president of communications for Gillette: ''This process provides a significant benefit over the more established zoning process. People have a true understanding of what the parties need to thrive in that area."

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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