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Water and Sewer lots ready for development

City soliciting community’s ideas on four-acre site

Isaiah Thompson
Water and Sewer lots ready for development
The city will soon seek a developer for the parking lots at the Boston Water and Sewer Commission in Lower Roxbury. IMAGE: BPDA

It isn’t often in a city the size and density of Boston that the opportunity presents itself to re-imagine — and indeed rebuild — more than four acres of publicly-owned land in the heart of the city. But that is exactly what the sprawling parking lot along Harrison Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, currently owned by the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, represents.

In a visioning session last week, officials with the Boston Planning & Redevelopment Agency (BPDA) took public input and gave at least a preliminary sketch of their own thinking around a plan to redevelop the land into housing and commercial properties, starting next year. 

The parcels in question, which now serve as a 400-space parking lot for BWSC employees and visitors, have been otherwise vacant since the 1970s, when dozens of residential and commercial properties, as well as a school, were razed during the urban renewal era.

The parcels were identified for potential redevelopment following a citywide land audit conducted last year by the Wu administration, which plans to utilize funds under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The ARPA funds are specifically designated for “building affordable housing in mixed-income communities on key properties,” said BPDA planner Rebecca Hansen.

“It’s a significant amount of area, and it provides a lot of promise in terms of, ‘What can this site be utilized for and what can be envisioned?’” said Hansen. “This is publicly-owned land, so we’re coming to [the public] before there is even a proposal in place, before there is a development team in place, to really understand what the community would like to see at this site.”

Restrictions on the use of those federal funds mean that the project must be awarded by the end of 2024 — relatively soon, in terms of major development projects — Hansen said.

Because the parcels are owned primarily by the BWSC, a quasi-governmental agency distinct from the City of Boston itself, the parcels do not fall under certain rubrics or standards for development that would automatically apply to city-owned land.

The project would not, for example, fall under the oversight of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee — though a spokesperson for the BPDA told the Banner that the agency does “expect RSMPOC members to participate in the Project Review Committee … a body of community members that will serve in an advisory capacity and provide community perspective throughout the RFP review process.” The PRC will be selected through an application process prior to the BPDA’s receiving proposals for the site.

Nor does the project necessarily fall under the standard of one-third low-income, one-third moderate-income and one-third market-rate housing applied to development on city-owned property.

BPDA officials have indicated, however, that the agency plans to adhere to many of the standards and guidelines set for city-owned land by the Wu administration and under the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan and the BPDA’s master plan for Nubian Square — including a goal of including roughly the mix of income-restricted housing that those plans envision. 

In a statement to the Banner, a BPDA spokesperson wrote, “One of the key objectives of the BWSC parking lot disposition is the creation of new housing units with a range of affordability levels. The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan and PLAN: Nubian did not previously envision the redevelopment of this site; however, those plans provided guidelines for housing affordability that were the result of a robust community engagement process.”

The statement added: “We have just begun the visioning process for the BWSC parking lots that will dictate the requirements of the [Request for Proposals], including the range of affordability that will be targeted for residential units. At this time, there is no rigid requirement for different levels of affordability, because we intend to work with the community to define the outcomes they are looking for this site to achieve.”

The city’s goals for development

In last week’s presentation, BPDA officials highlighted three goals identified by the Nubian Square planning initiative: providing a range of affordability levels; enhancing homeownership and wealth-building opportunities; and supporting, enhancing and growing the local economy through mixed-use development.

Beyond the priority of creating new housing and space for businesses, BPDA’s Hansen said, the agency is also proceeding with goals including creating more open space and green space and promoting ground-floor activation of small and local businesses.

Among questions posed during last week’s visioning session was whether preference would be given, in awarding one or more RFPs, to Roxbury-based developers and/or minority-owned developers.   

Hansen answered that such concerns could be addressed via the BPDA’s evaluation criteria for proposals.

“One of the criteria we look at is past qualifications and the understanding of the neighborhood context, so I think in that case someone with experience in Roxbury would certainly be able to speak more [to those goals],” Hansen said.

The BPDA will also be reviewing the “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan” for each proposal, which encompasses everything from ownership to construction, financing and community outreach.

“So I think that’s another opportunity specifically for Roxbury or proponents with ties to Roxbury to rise to the top,” said Hansen.

Other voices

During the meeting, District 7 City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who has proposed a moratorium on the development of new affordable housing in her district, voiced at least cautious optimism about the project, while also noting concerns that the meeting had drawn few participants.

“Hopefully it’s community-led and we are listening to what the constituents want to see take place, and that we can come to a wonderful resolution for development in that area,” the councilor said.

She also cautioned against visions for the parcels that emphasize walking and bicycling at the expense of leaving sufficient space for families who utilize cars to get around.

“A lot of the developers say to me, ‘Well, BPDA tells us you don’t need parking’ …. but they say that specifically in Black and brown communities, where families are poor, where we have a lot of families that have to get to their sick parent or pick up their kid or rush to a job,” she said. “We’re not necessarily addressing the needs for families with cars.”

Fernandes Anderson did not respond to the Banner’s request for comment for this story.

Lorraine Payne Wheeler, a participant in the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, voiced optimism.

“I’m excited because it’s four acres of land — it’s almost an opportunity to have a mini-neighborhood,” Wheeler told the Banner. “But it’s also important that we connect it to the neighborhood and amenities that are around it — we certainly don’t want it to be closed off.”

She added, “I think it’s a good opportunity, as long as there’s a lot of discussion about it and people show up for the meetings.”

Carol Blair, of Northampton Street, said she was “really pleased that this heat island … will be changed, and I’m hoping for the better. I know the development so far in that area has been right up to the sidewalk, and I’m hoping to see something different from that. … I see an opportunity to create a ‘Green Zone’ that would connect to Melnea Cass Boulevard.”

Former state senator and longtime local activist Dianne Wilkerson, who also participated in the meeting, had a somewhat different take.

Noting that “the mayor has some very bold and I think notable goals,” including wealth creation in Black and brown communities, Wilkerson questioned whether building more affordable housing on the BWSC site achieves that goal.

“The city’s housing policy of flooding and concentrating and lumping all the affordable housing in Roxbury is, in fact, mutually exclusive to and counter-intuitive to wealth creation — period,” Wilkerson said.

Boston Water and Sewer Commission, BPDA, BWSC, roxbury, Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, RSMPOC