A proposal to bring some 200 luxury apartments to the corner of Chapel and Olive streets hit a snag Wednesday night at the City Plan Commission.
The proposal—which involved converting the old Comcast building at the corner—had met with community support in concept. But the details involve approval of zoning amendments.
The City Plan Commission staff decided to revise the suggested zoning changes, but didn’t send out public notice until three hours before Wednesday night’s meeting, when they were scheduled to come up for a vote.
After commissioners and members of the public objected to the last-minute nature of the change, the developer agreed to withdraw the proposal and return to the commission next month, so people have more time to consider it.
The amendments would have paved the way for the developer, Spinnaker Residential LLC, to develop two properties on the corner of Chapel and Olive.
Spinnaker revealed plans in November to build four stories of apartments on top of ground-floor storefronts. The project in general met with public support, as it would expand a growing housing market to the no-man’s land between downtown and Wooster Square.
Stephen Studer, another attorney representing Spinnaker, said that he will return to the City Plan Commission next month with a plan that addressed concerns raised at the meeting. Residents’ and commissioners’ concerns included inadequate communication about the project, potential unintended consequences of zoning changes, and the legality of one of the proposals.
Attorney Anthony Avallone submitted two items to the City Plan Commission on behalf of Spinnaker. The first item would have amended the zoning map, moving the properties in question from a BA zone into a BD-1 zone. A BA zone allows properties to be built up to three or four stories, while a BD-1 zone allows properties to be built up to about 26 stories.
The second item, which was modified at the last minute—submitted about three hours before the meeting—would have decreased the maximum size of buildings in a BD-1 zone if the building stood adjacent to a residential area. This change would have applied to all BD-1 zones across the city, not just the area where Spinnaker wanted to build.
City Plan Commission Chair Ed Mattison said that doing all this, just to fix up a few properties, felt “like using a sledgehammer on a mosquito.” He said that he was worried more about what might happen in the future, perhaps with other properties.
“What you worry about in zoning matters especially are the unexpected results,” Mattison said after the meeting. “You know what you want to accomplish and you think this zone change will do it. But what else does it do? That’s always the question. What else does it do? It wasn’t clear to me what the answer was.”
Mattison called for more community input on the zoning issue specifically. He said that wanted to know how this zoning change would impact nearby areas. He said that he was concerned that the public comments in favor of the proposal focused on Spinnaker’s plans to develop the area, not on the zoning changes in and of themselves. The commissioners were set to vote on zoning changes, not the merit of the project.
Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg, along with two other Wooster Square neighbors, spoke in favor of the proposal. One of the neighbors, Elsie Chapman, who is also the co-president of the Historic Wooster Square Association, read a letter from the association.
“We believe that Spinnaker will deliver an attractive, quality product while keeping in mind the fact that they abut a residential community,” she said. Chapman said that she has confidence Spinnaker will hold to informal agreements it has made with neighbors that the buildings will not exceed six stories.
Meanwhile, Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell and Attorney Marjorie Shansky (pictured) spoke out against approving the zoning changes. Shansky spoke on behalf of PMC Property Group, which owns the Strauss Adler building, adjacent to one of the lots on which Spinnaker wants to build. Shansky said that even though Spinnaker showed a development plan to the neighborhood, “there would be nothing holding them to that plan if this commission were to adopt this change.”
Farwell went as far to consider the possibility that, were the commission to adopt the zoning changes, the property values might increase, and another developer might come in and do something completely different with the property.
Shansky also called the proposed zoning changes were illegal—an example of “spot zoning,” setting different zoning rules for a certain small area that might benefit one owner while being at odds with the interests of adjacent owners or of the city.
“The applicant is relying on the proposed land-use map that’s sitting in our comprehensive plan of development,” Shansky said. (The map is available on page II.28 here.) It designates most of a large area—approximately the triangle bounded by Route 1, Olive Street, and the east side of the railroad tracks—as a commercial mixed-used district. Avallone’s proposal would select two parcels out of this area and put them in zone BD-1. The other properties would remain in zone BA.
“If there were ever an example out of the gate of spot zoning, it would be to say: ‘I really on this plan to support my change of this zone, but do it only for the properties I care about,’” Shansky said. “This will be in the interest of the developer and not in the best interest of the city as a whole and therefore is illegal.”
Studer disagreed with Shansky’s accusation, and Avallone disagreed with Mattison’s concerns, especially regarding lack of sufficient community input. He said that his clients did everything they needed to do to bring the proposal to this point, and that it wasn’t fair for extra requirements to be imposed ex post facto.
“We’ve gone to the neighborhood extensively. Can you ever have enough community meetings?” Avallone asked.
“Whatever the requirements are, you’ve met them,” Mattison said.
“And that’s what I’m saying to you,” Avallone said.
Studer said that the team withdrew its requests because it preferred to clear up confusion than spend time litigating. “We’ll discuss how best to respond and we’ll be back here talking to you all and to them in about 30 days,” he said.