In a 3-3 vote today, the Zoning Board of Appeal today rejected a developer's plans for a two-building, 166-unit complex on Cambridge Street in Union Square that would have featured a sizeable number of "compact" units as well as some "affordable" studios aimed at artists.
Board members questioned whether the smaller units allowed under a city pilot will really translate into reduced rents and blasted the developer for a presentation that left them scratching their heads over just how small some of the studio units would be and how much "amenity" space the proposal would set aside for such things as shared cooking and dining space, a gym and a co-working area. The "compact" pilot program requires developers to set aside such space.
Anchorline Partners had proposed two seven-story buildings with 80 parking spaces. on land now occupied by an auto-body shop and a parking lot at 449 Cambridge St. and 2 Emery St. A total of 17% of the units would be rented as affordable, compared to the city requirement of 13%, with eight of those units specifically aimed at artists looking for live/work space.
The BPDA board approved the project last August, but it needed several zoning variances because of its height, density and amount of parking. "That does not mean you have a rubber stamp when you come to this board," board Chairwoman Christine Araujo said.
Zoning-board members - who have approved a number of "compact living" proposals in the past - quickly raised a series of objections, including the fact that some of the studios were really small and that the developers were unable to say exactly what they were planning for the indoor "amenity" space called for with compact units. After hearing several possible uses, board member Kosta Ligris said it would be tough to fit all that into the roughly 2,000 square feet allotted as "amenity space."
Board member Mark Erlich agreed and raised the issue of really small studios. "There seems to be a gulf between what is actually being proposed and and the way you're presenting it and we don't appreciate it."
Araujo said developers and the BPDA keep pushing compact units as a way to reduce rents, but she said she has yet to see any data that proves that's actually happening - and that she is concerned about increasingly dense development along Cambridge Street in particular.
Moira McCrave, an aide to City Councilor Liz Breadon, who made housing affordability a part of her campaign two years ago, said that data from other neighborhoods seems to show rents might be $200 to $500 a month cheaper, but that "we're not seeing as much rental savings as we would like" in proposals specifically for Allston.
Araujo said she found it telling that two members of the advisory group the BPDA set up to consider the plans for 449 Cambridge St. and 2 Emery St. spoke before her board to oppose the project.
Despite his misgivings, Erlich moved to approve the project, both because the city does have an official policy of supporting compact units and because 17% of the units would be rented as affordable, more than the city requires.
Tony D'Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, said his group supported the project, but barely. He said that for some reason, Boston has "targeted Allston" to serve as the test bed for the smaller-unit pilot. Some eight or nine projects have been approved under it for the neighborhood, although none have yet opened for occupancy.
BPDA filings and documents on the proposal.