With five controversial development projects on Monday night’s Orient Heights Neighborhood Council (OHNC) meeting and the community ready for a fight, Mayor Martin Walsh’s surprise visit to the group couldn’t have been more poorly timed.
However, Walsh jumped feet-first into the fire prior to the presentations by developers and took the brunt of the community’s frustrations regarding Eastie’s development boom.
“Our neighborhood is under assault by developers,” said OHNC member Joseph Arangio. “The developers come here on a regular basis, buy a piece of land with a one-family house in a one-family zone and propose three, four, five, six, seven units. They are voted done and then they go to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and they are approved. We are becoming a community of transient residents that come here for two or three years and move on. This arae used to be a family community and now it’s a community with no roots. We are trying to preserve our history and we are getting no help. We are asking you to look at what is going on, look at the ZBA and support the people who have been here for years and years.”
Walsh said numerous factors have led to the housing and economic boom in Eastie and Boston as a whole.
“The population of Boston is 700,000 and we have grown by 50,000 in the last year,” said Walsh. “The last time the population was this high was in the 1950s. We have also added 120,000 new jobs in the city. When I became Mayor in 2014 a lot of people in East Boston welcomed development and wanted new development because nothing was happening here. When the waterfront took off here developers started to look at the neighborhood like they did with South Boston, the Seaport, Charlestown and Dorchester where I lived years ago.”
To begin addressing the community’s concerns over development, Walsh said in the past year the city has done two things.
First the city placed an IPOD or Interim Planning Overlay District in the neighborhood. The IPOD ensures all projects, both those that need variances and those that are so-called as of right, have to go through the community process and ZBA.
Second, Walsh and the Boston Planning and Development Agency launched PLAN: East Boston to begin developing a master plan for zoning in the neighborhood. This would update the last zoning master plan that was completed two decades ago.
“With the IPOD in place there are no more “as of right” projects and the PLAN: East Boston initiative is your plan and what you want to see your neighborhood like 10, 15, 20 years down the road.”
The Mayor also responded to Arangio’s assertion that everything is rubber stamped by the ZBA despite lack of community support.
However, Walsh explained that several factors go into the ZBA’s decision and developers must work with the community to find a balance.
“People say we approve everything, but we don’t unless a developer goes to the community and work with the neighborhood, the elected officials and abutters to make sure a project is a good project,” said Walsh. “Just because five proposals are being proposed tonight doesn’t mean five proposals are being developed.”
With that said the Mayor added the community rarely sees the process through all its stages and a large percentage of projects get shelved when developers, lacking community and political support, pull their projects from the ZBA.
“Look I’ve heard the neighborhood loud and clear and we are looking at ways to promote more ‘smart’ development in the neighborhood,” said Walsh.
However, Walsh said the city has to strike a balance between the hot demand to live in Boston and the needs of the city’s neighborhoods like Eastie.
Walsh explained that a few years back, the lack of housing drove rents to all-time highs across the city forcing lifelong residents to move because they couldn’t afford to live here anymore.
By building more housing units the city was able to stabilize the rental market for a bit due to supply and demand. As more housing units became available rents trended down because the supply of apartments started to outweigh the demand. However, rents began skyrocketing again about three years ago as more and more people began to look to live in the city as job opportunities increased.
“We are dealing with an economy where people want to live in the City of Boston,” said Walsh. “So if we don’t do anything and build more housing the people that live here now and lived here for their entire lives are going to be pushed out of Boston. In the zoning master plan through PLAN: East Boston we are trying to figure out where density makes sense, where transit orientated projects make sense and where neighborhoods made up of one and two family homes need to be preserved.”