At one table, neighbors said they could live with new six-story buildings. Too tall, said neighbors at another — four should be the limit.
That detailed debate emerged at a broader discussion of the future of an historic neighborhood in transition: Wooster Square.
Officials summoned neighbors to Conte West Hills School Thursday night to start talking about the way they hope to see planned changes take place in Wooster Square. Two developers are seeking to build 500 new market-rate apartments on the no-man’s land connecting the neighborhood’s southwestern end to downtown; the developers are seeking zoning relief, including permission to build taller than allowed under current rules. (Click here and here to read about those plans. Meanwhile, the city’s housing authority is razing and rebuilding the Farnam Courts housing development on the neighborhood’s northeastern flank.
About 40 neighbors showed up to the meeting, which officials called to hear initial input as they draw up an updated comprehensive plan for the city, a state mandated document that charts the future of land use in the city. The City Plan Department last revised the plan in 2003.
No votes were taken. Instead, neighbors broke into groups discussing future plans.
Neighbors said they know change is coming to Wooster Square. They want to make sure the neighborhood’s character remains intact.
“How do we want that growth and energy to be translated into that neighborhood,” City Plan Director Karyn Gilvarg (pictured) asked the gathering.
The consensus for preserving the Wooster Square neighborhood — historically a largely residential district of townhouses and leafy trees — was that the new construction should remain consistent with architecture styles and heights in the neighborhood, and should integrate into the surrounding residential areas by offering practical local commercial services, such as pharmacies or cafes.
“There is going to be dramatic change in the area surrounding Wooster Square,” State Rep. Roland Lemar said after the meeting. “In advance of the developments coming into fruition, it’s always good to have neighbors coming out if they’re not in a reactive mode.”
The neighbors split into four tables to discuss their concerns and preferences for the Wooster Square area within six parameters: housing, transportation, arts and entertainment, economic development, environment and general quality of life.
At one table, Assistant Director of Comprehensive Planning Susmitha Attota asked neighbors what they think about the neighborhood’s historic character.
“If you had an opportunity would you want to see more historic district or not?”
“Yes,” multiple people said, before discussing the differences between locally and nationally classified historic districts.
At a different table, neighbors lamented the lack of a laundromat near Warren Street. Nearby, East Rock/Downtown Alder Abby Roth mentioned the need for saving Wooster Square’s green spaces. City transit director Doug Hausladen (pictured) then asked his table about their thoughts on the Amtrak bridges.
Presenters from each table reported their main discussion points to the group afterward. One consistent theme was the need for safer and livable streets. People mentioned wanting to see wide sidewalks that fit tables, an improved walk from Union Street to the train station and more flower pots lining the buildings and bridges.
The discussion at times focused not on the specific construction projects planned, but more generally at ways the Comprehensive Plan could incorporate improvements to Wooster Square. Domenic Grignano, who owns a building in Wooster Square, said there is concern in the neighborhood that parts are going downhill.
“Certain streets could be better,” he said, and added that it is productive to have city planners listen to members of the neighborhood, whose views are at times overlooked during development.
“The Little Italy Thing”
But the question of how to preserve the Wooster Square identity and functionality for existing residents amidst the change remained the central question. Rev. Alex Dyer said his table discussed how to “play up the Little Italy thing” and highlight the “distinct flavor of what Wooster Square is all about.”
All tables mentioned the importance of “real” mixed-use housing coming in at the rebuilt Farnam Court redevelopment — not just putting “a private gym for the complex on the bottom floor and [calling] it ‘mixed–use,’” Dyer added.
Lemar said the sheer amount of development pressure is unprecedented for the neighborhood.
“I was surprised how receptive people were to the idea of new development,” Lemar said. “To hear so many people say, ‘Yes, we’re kind of okay with that.’”
After the presentations, Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg said the representatives present — including himself, Roth, Ward 6 Alder Dolores Colón and the city planning officials — plan to draw up a document summarizing peoples’ desires and concerns. Then they will send out a draft of that document, meet again in October and point to the concrete feedback they’ve received as they plan zoning and construction in upcoming years.
“We have to go forward and improve. We don’t want to go backwards, we want to be an inclusive city,” said Colón. “What do we have the buildings for if people can’t go out and walk around and do the business of living?”