Wednesday, March 04, 2009

BRA and the Mayor creating wealth and towers for developers while residents get the shaft

Paul McMorrow of Banker and Tradesman has an excellent article about how the Mayor and BRA have not helped the residents of Fort Point Channel. After that, I have published a letter from one of the community leaders who clarifies even further how much money has been generated for these developers and how the citizens have not received a single swingset yet for their neighborhood. The BRA has to go, citizen input in development must replace it, and we must have a zoning code which is not for sale.

First Paul McMorrow:

The newly minted Fort Point Channel Landmark District was assembled to prevent demolition and preserve the brick warehouses that fill the South Boston neighborhood.
However, in their first application, the landmark regulations will be used to clear the way for the razing of an 85-year old warehouse – a demolition the neighborhood landmark documents explicitly allow. And while Fort Point residents have resigned themselves to the irony of a preservation district endorsing demolition, they’re no less wary about the tower that will replace the doomed warehouse at 319 A St. Rear.
Goldman Sachs’ real estate arm, the Archon Group, and their partner, New York developer Tony Goldman, have told the Boston Redevelopment Authority they want to replace the Pastene Alley warehouse with a 269-foot tall, 290-unit residential tower. That would be 89 feet taller than the 180 feet the site is zoned for. Abutting buildings range from 95-135 feet in height.
Preserve Via Growth And Change?
Ellen Lipsey, executive director of the Boston Landmarks Commission, said the new regulations aim to “preserve what draws people to the area, and allow it to grow and change in a way that’s complimentary to its character. The intent of the district is to preserve historic buildings and promote infill that respects scale and character of the neighborhood.” Demolition of the Pastene Alley warehouse was grandfathered into the regulations, she said, because it’s addressed specifically in the BRA’s master plan for the area.
The 100 Acres planned development area that governs development in the area allows for heights in excess of 180 feet at that site in exchange for exceptional community benefits. The planning documents don’t specifically endorse demolition on the site, but the landmarks document says the city “will consider [a] rooftop addition … and/or new construction in place of” the building at 319 A St. Rear. Last week, Archon’s regional director, John Matteson, said his firm plans to level the warehouse entirely.
“This is the beginning of the 100 Acres,” Matteson said. “It’s the first new building, and it will be tied into all the other new buildings that will go on the Post Office and Gillette [parcels]. At the end of the day, it’s going to be an interesting, mixed-use neighborhood.”
Matteson also stressed that “we’re just in the first inning” of the tower proposal. He said Archon is bullish on the tower’s prospects because of the success Berkeley Investments’ FP3 is enjoying. “You feel like things are coming along,” he said.
Even so, the proposal has raised eyebrows in the neighborhood. It came months after his firm backed out of an office-to-condo conversion project a block away, at 316-322 Summer St. Archon instead sold the building to the Lincoln Property Co., which invited wrathful blowback from neighbors when it deemed the condo project economically infeasible, and sought BRA approvals to renovate the building’s office space.

Super-Sized Shift
There’s a fundamental disagreement in the Fort Point neighborhood about whether Archon’s proposed residential tower represents a profound shift in philosophy – or just an escalation in ambition.
The Texas-based firm paid $92 million for 16 Boston Wharf Co. warehouses in mid-2005. Archon has already turned a profit on that deal. In just a short time, it has been able to sell off half its Wharf Co. portfolio for $132 million – a tidy $40 million profit on its original investment.
Such success has bred enmity among Fort Point’s artists, some of whom Archon has displaced. They view the firm as an interloper whose sole purpose in the neighborhood is to hold buildings for a few years, and then flip them for a profit. It doesn’t help that Archon’s own Web site speaks bluntly about plans for acquiring city approvals for additional square footage for its buildings, and then selling those permits “once zoning approval of the additional FAR is complete.”

Artistic Outrage
“That basically spells it out,” said one resident, speaking anonymously because open criticism has drawn sharp rebukes from City Hall in the past. “Archon’s in the business of securing rights and then getting out. It’s their M.O. They have no desire to develop anything.”
“They convinced the BRA that Melcher Street is shovel-ready, but nobody believes they’ll build it. They’ll flip it,” said another resident, referring to Archon and Goldman’s 220,000-square-foot office project proposal. “Nobody believes they’ll do the tower. They’ll sell the permits. And the BRA acts like they want to believe them. From the time Archon came to the neighborhood, they pitched this vision of this dynamic neighborhood. Of course, that hasn’t happened. They sold most of their property for offices. The only residential they’ve asked for is this goddamn tower.”
“We will build it,” Matteson insisted. “It’s our intention to build it.”

One of the residents responds:

Hi all,

For the record, I'd like to clear up a few mis-statements in the Banker
and Tradesman article (below) regarding the Archon project.

1. When Archon purchased 319 A Street, it was zoned for approximately 80
feet (wharf building height), not 180 feet as stated in this article.
The BRA quietly awarded Archon an additional 100 feet in height on that
parcel during a private process at City Hall, with very little public
dialog, and then proceeded to enact the zoning change for a 180' tower
in the 100 Acre Plan. At that time, the BRA assured our community that
this zoning variance would result in the development of other components
of the 100-Acre plan, including park space, civic space, and a mix of
uses in historic buildings (i.e. residential, live/work studio, etc.)

To date, Archon has developed NONE of its public commitments under the
100-Acre Plan, yet has already attained the variance for 180' feet at
319 A Street through its private negotiations with the BRA.

The Archon portfolio, upzoned by nearly 500,000 square feet, is valued
at approximately $250 million at current market prices. Most of this
added value was handed to Archon by the BRA. If past is prologue, this
$250 million in value will pocketed by Archon when they flip these
rights to another developer. Archon will be gone from Boston before the
lights are out.

Counter to its public claims, the BRA has not required the concurrent
development of a single square foot of new park space, civic space,
residential development in historic buildings, artist live/work spaces,
or any number of amenities that were assured during approximately sixty
100-Acre planning meetings. Instead the BRA has made 2-year lease
negotiations for 20-40 artists the centerpiece of its planning effort.

Of course, it's easy to be cynical. Over the past decade of conducting
hundreds of planning charrettes (e.g. charades), the BRA has not
produced a single square foot of new park space or permanent civic space
in Fort Point -- the fundamental building blocks of ANY evolving

The fun doesn't end there...

As the article below suggests, in a second round of private negotiations
between the BRA and Archon, the BRA is awarding Archon an additional
variance (filed as an amendment to the 100-Acre Plan) which will grant
Archon the right to build to 269' feet at 319 A Street.

Through the BRA's recent meetings and the Boston media, Fort Point
residents and Bostonians are being led to believe that Archon originally
purchased the site with a zoning at 180', and is now simply upgrading to
269' and providing a residential tower. The original variance is all but
forgotton -- except by a small handful of people that know about it.

So, as this project moves forward, Fort Point, will be park-less,
civic-less, art-less, and will have warehouse buildings approaching 90%
as office space. This is exactly where we were headed ten years ago --
before the BRA engaged in its so-called "Fort Point Planning" effort.

2. As a member of the Study Committee on the landmark effort I can
report that, contrary to what is suggested by this article, the Landmark
process was EXTREMELY productive and the guidelines are truly
extraordinary in the recognition of historic wharf buildings. The reason
the Archon project on Melcher and 319 A Street is tricky with respect to
the Landmark designation is that Archon's 180' tower proposal was
approved as part of the 100-Acre Plan, in 2006. During our landmark
meetings between 2006 and 2008 we had to acknowledge prior planning
efforts, including the 100-Acre Plan.

I appreciate your time reading this.

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