At a meeting last night at the Gavin School in South Boston, Tom O'Brien, Director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) presented a preview of the agency's forthcoming South Boston Seaport District Master Plan. Approximately 300-400 people, mainly South Boston residents, were in attendance. The presentation included slides and comments which reflected the shift in the BRA's master plan from its first draft last year -- away from the commercial district comprised of large-scale blocks, boulevards and structures to a waterfront neighborhood comprised of a mix of scales and narrower streets.
O'Brien addressed the need for housing in the Seaport District, forecasting the development of 8,000 to 10,000 new housing units. The units, according to O'Brien, would accommodate a mixed level of affordability in order to make the district accessible to a wide variety of residents. The BRA prepared a document which demonstrated the pressures on South Boston's housing market and how those pressures would be alleviated through new housing development. To read "Effects of Seaport Development on Neighborhood Housing Demand in South Boston" click here.
Although the Seaport District height issue (a flash point for South Boston last year) was not directly addressed, the presentation included a chart that indicated heights of 75 feet on Fan Pier, 150 feet in the inner harbor area (mostly McCourt property), 100 feet on Pier 4 (Athanas), 85 feet in the area surrounding the Convention Center. Although the evening's slides suggested smaller scale structures, O'Brien and BRA documents provided were careful to use the term "base height" instead of maximum height when discussing any particular development area. Most of the slides and visuals shown, including images of housing and walkthroughs of the district, depicted structures of approximately 60 - 75 feet. Slides showing height maps of the Seaport District did not include the heights over 150 feet already in development (Massport office and hotel projects already completed or under way are 200-250 feet).
The presentation touched on improvements to streets and infrastructure. O'Brien mentioned the breakup of larger blocks into smaller streets and showed a slide that showed an extension of the Fort Point grid extending to Fan Pier. Another slide depicted the proposed transitway system, including the Silver Line and connections between the airport tunnel and the central artery.
RESPONSE TO THE BRA PRESENTATION
Following the BRA presentation, South Boston political leaders including (in order) State Senator Stephen F. Lynch, Representative Jack Hart, and City Council President Jim Kelly voiced their concerns. Senator Lynch, Rep. Hart and Councilor Kelly all expressed apprehension regarding the development of new housing units within the Seaport District. Council President Kelly mentioned his concern that new housing units would be luxury or upscale units and would only be affordable to a small percentage of existing South Boston residents. Councilor Kelly stated that he would support some new residential units -- reconsidering his earlier position of "no new residential development."
Senator Lynch and Councilor Kelly stressed the need within the South Boston community for affordable housing. Representative Hart encouraged the empowerment of South Boston residents through educational opportunities.
Approximately 15 audience members asked questions.
Major concerns included:
While only one questioner voiced opposition to new housing development within the Seaport District, a number of questioners (supported by loud applause) discussed the housing stresses within South Boston and the immediate need to alleviate this pressure. Tom O'Brien discussed a plan that is being considered to convert an existing oil processing facility (along 1st Street) into 150 affordable housing units. He also showed a slide of South Boston where a number of affordable housing units could be sited. One questioner discussed the condo conversions within South Boston and suggested that the BRA consider limiting these conversions. Rep. Hart stated that he is working on this type of measure to protect communities from market pressure.
A number of questions regarding linkage were asked. One question asked the percentage of linkage available to the South Boston Betterment Trust. O'Brien stated that 100% of Convention Center Hotel and a majority of all other linkage money would go to the SBBT. Other questioners were concerned that linkage would not be available as promised and should be required as up-front payments. A number of questioners voiced concern that South Boston was being bought, repeating a theme that the current influx of money and the promises being made to benefit South Boston would also negatively impact their lives. The complicated relationships formed between Seaport District developers and the South Boston community was raised as a potential conflict.
A number of questioners implored the BRA to support the strong union base within South Boston, to re-examine the development promises being made and/or broken, and to better regulate the hiring and management practices of Seaport District hotels and other projects. One questioner, the president of the Hotel Worker's Union, responded to Tom O'Brien's assertion that 106 South Boston residents worked in the Seaport Hotel. She said that employees of the Seaport Hotel who have South Boston accents are being admonished and told to improve their speech. She also stated that the Seaport Hotel does not offer full benefits to a large number of these employees because they are generally low-level service positions.
Multiple questions related to health problems within South Boston. These questioners asked about the cleanup of contaminated sites within the Seaport District before housing development would be considered, about truck exhaust caused as a result of poor traffic management, and about a potential hazard in the Reserve Channel resulting from the tremendous sewage burden.
Finally, many South Boston residents expressed sensitivity at literal and figurative attempts to divide South Boston and its waterfront. Stated concerns included naming the "South Boston waterfront" the "Seaport District." Another concern was that Boston zip codes were being assigned within the Seaport District, enabling district businesses to use a Boston, rather than a South Boston address. Tom O'Brien indicated that the name "Seaport District" is used in many BRA publications and should remain. He stated that the zip code matter must be addressed with the US Postal Service.