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Roxbury’s Highland Park versus City Realty on Juniper Street project

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Members of the neighborhood association in Roxbury’s Highland Park came together for an emergency meeting on Jan. 23. Developers were due to appear the following morning before the city’s zoning board, where they would seek zoning relief to allow them to proceed with construction plans for a Juniper Street property.

The problem: The developers still had not sat down with residents to get feedback or explain the project, Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition members said.

HPNC members say City Realty has not responded to requests to meet with them, while the developers say they already reached out to HPNC and have met with abutters and community residents on their own, even if they have not attended HPNC meetings.

While City Realty says many resident respondents support the project, HPNC firmly voted to oppose it and questions where this support is coming from.

“We know from the past that community support can be misrepresented at Board of Appeal hearings,” John Ellertson, Thornton Street resident and HPNC secretary, wrote in an email to local elected officials, residents and the Banner.

The centerpiece of the discussion is 37-39 Juniper Street, owned by City Realty, and site of two existing townhouses. City Realty members plan to build two more townhouses on the rear of the site in a manner necessitating zoning lenience. Before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal can give the go-ahead, a developer is obliged to meet with community members.

The Juniper project dispute raises questions on the nature of an effective community engagement process, and which stakeholders must be included.

Project concerns and details

Rodney Singleton, HPNC member, said that past bitter relations with the developers over “sober homes” adjacent to the site has left many residents wary.

“Historically, City Realty’s been a bad player,” Singleton, who lives on Cedar Street near another City Realty property, told the Banner in a phone interview. “We just have a real bad taste in our mouth.”

Singleton and Ellertson separately cited a variety of concerns about the project, including factors such as parking, traffic density and transient use. Ellertson said in an email that there is concern that the new developments would house students, potentially driving up rent at the expense of long-term residents. Homeownership opportunities would be a better use of the property, Singleton said.

In a conversation with the Banner, Josh Fetterman, director of real estate development at City Realty and Jeff Drago, the firm’s zoning attorney, said the plans entail construction of two townhouses in the open expanse at the rear of the site. The townhouses, known as 37R-39R Juniper Street, would be sold as condos, likely to families. Parking spaces behind the existing buildings would be widened and paved, ultimately creating five parking spaces — one more than developers are obliged to provide.

Zoning relief is needed to allow the proposed buildings’ side and rear yards to be smaller than otherwise required and for the parking spaces to be located between the two pairs of townhouses, Drago said.

While there is no community benefit package per se, Fetterman says they would bring benefit to other residents by repairing Juniper Terrace, which has fallen into disrepair and connects to 37-39 Juniper Street and others nearby properties. City Realty would repave the terrace as well as a back area parking lot shared by its current Juniper townhouses and a few neighboring buildings. The firm also would continue to handle snow removal for those areas.

Repairing Juniper Terrace also could alleviate parking pressure, Fetterman said, as during bad weather, cars sometimes park on the street rather than risk traveling down the pothole-riddled road.

“When it snows, cars don’t want to go down, so they park on the street,” Fetterman said. “Part of our action to clean up Juniper Terrace and ensure snow is removed is in response to one of those parking questions.”

For HPNC, higher on their list than any property-specific concern is the lack of conversation that leaves wariness and lingering questions.

“That’s probably the biggest issue,” Singleton said. “We’ve made requests to have City Realty come to the table and tell us their plans so we can have a discussion round these properties. For any number of reasons, they’ve not been able to make or fit into their schedule to attend a community meeting.”

Community representation

In the Jan. 23 special meeting, the ten HPNC members in attendance voted unanimously to oppose the project, according to Ellertson. Five more Thornton and Juniper Street residents who could not be there in person sent on expressions of opposition as well. Singleton said residents on the group’s listserv also oppose the project.

Ellertson said that City Realty was invited to attend HPNC’s Jan. 10 meeting, but did not show. Singleton said HPNC has been trying for about two months to get City Realty to come meet with them.

Meanwhile, City Realty representatives and Joshua McFadden, the city’s Roxbury Liaison, said they reached out to the HNPC in October. McFadden said they did not receive a reply until late October or early November, while City Realty members recall not receiving a response until January. As such, the city and developers moved ahead without HPNC to arrange resident meetings at the Shelburne Center.

“I reached out to them [the HPNC]. We didn’t hear form them for a while. That’s why we had to set up our own abutters meeting,” McFadden said in a Banner phone interview. “We had to go forward with making sure that at least some residents heard the proposal.”

According to McFadden, Drago and Fetterman, about ten residents attended the first meeting, in late November, and about nine attended a second meeting in January. Flyering for the meetings was required within 300 feet of the Juniper Street properties, but was not required to extend more broadly.

McFadden said residents seemed fairly supportive.

“They got the support of some of the direct abutters as well as the local condo association,” McFadden said.

Fetterman said they also received letters of support from abutters.

“We met with a number of abutters and received a number of letters of support. Overall, it’s been positive,” he said.

That news clashes directly with HPNC’s perspective. Singleton and Ellertson say that former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, representing a consulting firm engaged by City Realty, told HPNC members that the developers have 20 letters from residents stating support of the project.

Ellertson and Singleton expressed doubts, however, that the letters reflect the full voice of the community, and asked to see them.

“We demand to see such letters, as we suspect many of them may be from City Realty tenants or residents of the adjacent Sober Homes,” Ellertson wrote.

“We would love to see those letters that they claim they have,” Singleton said. “We know at the past few meetings we’ve been to at the Highland Park Neighborhood Coalition … there has not been one — not one — endorsement of the projection save from Dianne Wilkerson. … Other than that, the community that I see says, No, we want them to first come to a community meeting and we want to talk.”

Given the HPNC response, the mayor’s office requested that the Zoning Board of Appeals, which heard City Realty’s Juniper Street Request, defer on passing a final opinion. Instead, a new community meeting is set for Feb. 16. This will not fulfill HPNC’s request for developers to attend one of the neighborhood association’s meetings, but will be held at the Area B-2 police station in Dudley Square. HPNC, Shelburne Community Center members and other residents are invited, Fetterman said.

City Realty’s new Zoning Board of Appeals date is set for March 16, McFadden said.