By Michael Coughlin Jr.
At its Neighborhood Residential Workshop on Thursday, March 2, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) presented updates to its zoning recommendations initially revealed to residents in October.
The original zoning recommendations in October called for zoning to focus on the dimensions of a building rather than its use. The updated recommendations discussed at last week’s meeting include setting unit density limits, reducing allowed building size, changing off-street parking requirements, and more.
These revised recommendations come from months of community engagement meetings with numerous neighborhood and civic associations to better gauge feedback regarding the initial draft proposal.
“It probably will not surprise you that what we heard in response really ran the gamut. From folks who strongly opposed any changes to how zoning works today to folks who actually felt like our recommendations did not go far enough in some ways,” said BPDA Senior Planner Kristina Ricco.
“These are proposed changes to draft recommendations intended to directly address the feedback we’ve received.”
Regarding the unit density limits, the BPDA proposes that for a majority of East Boston, most lots would allow no more than three units and an additional dwelling unit (ADU) inside a building. However, lots greater than 50 feet wide would allow for no more than six units and an ADU.
Additionally, elsewhere in East Boston, such as the top of Orient Heights Hill, parts of Bayswater, and a portion of Harborview, every lot would be limited to buildings with no more than two units and an ADU.
ADUs, which allow homeowners to create an extra unit in their homes by converting rooms like basements and attics, could potentially serve as a way to preserve existing housing. Especially considering the city offers to provide loans to build ADUs to those who qualify.
In conjunction with the unit density limits, the BPDA is proposing limits on allowed buildable area. These restrictions for lots themselves would include requirements on front, side, and rear yard setbacks and the introduction of a maximum lot coverage.
As for the building’s restrictions, they include the height and would introduce limits on width, depth, and a maximum floorplate.
“Limits on buildable area plus the unit density restriction work together to create the sort of – not only the form, but the density that I think are familiar to people,” said Ricco.
For example, Ricco explained that for most parcels in the neighborhood, new buildings would be similar to three-deckers that are prevalent in East Boston. As for larger lots, they would contain buildings similar to a paired three-decker.
“It’s the intention that we really focus on a building form that is very familiar to people,” said Ricco.
Similarly to the unit density restrictions, the area at the top of Orient Heights Hill, parts of Bayswater, and a portion of Harborview differ from the rest of East Boston. The new proposal limits the height for buildings in this area to 2.5 stories rather than three and reduces the allowed building footprint.
In addition to the unit density and building area restrictions, the BPDA is also proposing to waive the off-street parking requirement for buildings with three units or fewer. This recommendation is in an effort to “retain and expand tree canopy, preserve on-street parking, and reduce impervious surfaces.”
For those residents who gave feedback during the question and answer portion of the meeting, it seemed like the updates left much to be desired.
One of the main issues residents had, especially those from Orient Heights, was with the plan’s ability to preserve single and two-family homes.
“I think a lot of what you heard was that we would like to preserve our single and two-family housing, and I did not see that listed as anything that you’ve heard, but I’ve been copied on at least 40 emails that I know have been sent to you – so I know you’ve seen it maybe you haven’t heard it, and I think its time that you start to hear it,” said resident John Casamassima.
“If you look at the objective of this plan, it was to preserve, enhance, and grow, and all I’m seeing is grow, grow, grow.”
Several residents also had a problem with the proposal to remove the off-street parking requirement for certain buildings.
“For those people who think – as a planner – that two cars in front of one of these buildings will more than satisfy the need for parking – to me, that’s laughable,” said resident Mary Berninger.
“We want to be able to use our cars the way that we want to use them, and that means they should continue to require on-site parking for anything that gets built or gets changed.”
Another big issue that was brought up was the lack of trust in the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) and its actual enforcement of the potential zoning changes in terms of granting variances.
One resident said, “There’s nothing that says that they [the ZBA] won’t provide variances like they have been doing for the last 10 to 15 years. There’s no guarantee that you can provide us for that, and that’s why a lot of us are angry because we’ve had to deal with these, and you’re making it sound like it’s a guarantee.”
As there will surely be more feedback on this newest draft for zoning in East Boston, the following steps for this planning endeavor include a Spanish-language community meeting in April. Also, a final draft of the recommendations is slated to come sometime in May.