United: Orient Heights Stands Against Zoning Changes

By Michael Coughlin Jr.

At least a couple hundred Orient Heights residents gathered together on Wednesday, March 22, in the Madonna Shrine Function Room to voice their displeasure with zoning changes proposed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA).

As described by Kathleen Onufer, the BPDA’s Assistant Deputy Director for Downtown & Neighborhood Planning, the zoning proposal “tries to focus on the form of a building to make sure we’re thinking about what is the appropriate scale building to go into neighborhoods.”

Joanne Pomodoro makes her views about the zoning plan known.
Signs created and put on display during the meeting.

The proposed zoning would have parameters for certain aspects of a building, such as setbacks, height, width, and more.

As part of this proposal, Orient Heights would be split into two zoning areas. In the first area, which makes up most of Orient Heights and Baysview, buildings would be limited to two-and-a-half stories and allow only two units plus an additional dwelling unit (ADU).

As for the other area closer to MBTA stations, buildings of up to three stories would be allowed with three units and an ADU. However, lots over 50 feet wide would allow for a maximum of six units and an ADU.

It should be noted that Jason Ruggiero, a Community Engagement Manager with the BPDA, indicated that developments could only include an ADU if owner-occupied.

Additionally, as part of the zoning proposal, the off-street parking requirement would be waived for buildings with three units or fewer.

Along with several elected officials and a significant amount of Orient Heights residents, the BPDA’s Chief of Planning, Arthur Jemison, was also in attendance.

“This is not an effort to dramatically up-zone your neighborhood,” said Jemison – which got a loud collective groan from the couple hundred Orient Heights residents.

It was clear from the beginning of the meeting that residents did not want anything to do with this plan. Several signs around the room criticized the BPDA and Mayor Michelle Wu for a plan that residents felt would destroy single-family housing in the area.

While Mayor Wu was not in attendance – which elicited more groans from the crowd – several other elected officials were and showed their support for Orient Heights.

Senator Lydia Edwards was one of those elected officials in attendance and stood behind residents.

“When we hear about the up-zone or changing of zoning as a form of predictability, a lot of people just don’t believe it is going to be real,” said Edwards, referencing the abundance of variances given to developments even with today’s zoning guidelines. 

“What needs to be part of any plan for us to trust this process is to see you stop giving out variances and enforcing the zoning that we have right now,” she added, which garnered a round of applause.

At-large, City Councilor Erin Murphy also threw her support to residents saying, “It’s my job as your at-large City Councilor to be your voice. I will say, and I don’t mean this in an adversarial way at all, but – I don’t work for the Mayor – I work for those who voted me in,” which got another round of applause. 

After several elected officials spoke, it was finally time for residents to take one of the microphones around the function room and state their positions. Several did so – loud and clear.

One resident was concerned with the ADU aspect, explaining that even if ADUs were limited to owner-occupants, what is to stop owners from knocking down a one-family home, building a two-family building,  living at a property, then building out the ADU before leaving.

In response, Jemison said that his “reasonable person” answer was, “Developers don’t typically do that – developers don’t typically move into a neighborhood and then live there for years and then add an ADU.”

Jemison’s answer elicited a loud, sarcastic laugh from residents. However, Jemison went on to say that rules could be written into the zoning to prevent that from happening.

Another concern brought forth by another resident, John Casamassima, was regarding the actual allowable size of buildings under this proposal.

“The part that is not clear about what’s been presented is how large these buildings are going to be. We’re talking about saving backyards, but for example, every house on this side of the street can have a foundation of 3,000 square feet – it’s 40% of the lot size,” said Casamassima.

“You can have a first floor of 3,000 square feet, you can have a second floor of 3,000 square feet, and I don’t know if there’s a cap … I don’t want to live next to a 10,000 square foot Wellesley mansion whether it’s one unit or three.”

Essentially the answer Onufer gave was that a cap would depend on different given lots across the neighborhood, dependent on things like a maximum floorplate, setbacks, and lot coverage guidelines.

As the meeting went on, resident after resident voiced their displeasure with the plan. One resident called the plan a “war on family,” while others shouted for the BPDA to “go away.”

Through all the comments and views stated, Joe Arangio, another resident, probably summed up the feelings of those in the crowd best by describing what they wanted from the plan.

“We want to maintain the fabric of this community. We want two or less units, and we want them in buildings that have front and side and rear setbacks that are consistent with the rest of the community – that’s the bottom line – with parking,” said Arangio.

Overall, it is clear that residents of Orient Heights are not going to lie down and accept what has been proposed for their neighborhood and are willing to fight for the fabric of their neighborhood.

Moreover, it is even more apparent after the turnout last Wednesday, and as Ruggiero alluded to at the beginning of the meeting – the conversation is not over just yet.

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