[UPDATE Monday, Feb. 4, 8:46 a.m.]
Anyone who has driven around Charlestown lately or watched the constant stream of public meeting notices posted by the Charlestown Neighborhood Council can see that the development business is booming right now in the community. There are construction projects in various stages all over town, from the apartment building going up on the former Knights of Columbus site to the nearly complete Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in the Navy Yard.
Charlestown Patch recently sat down with CNC Development Committee chairman Mark Rosenshein to talk about that construction boom, as well as how the review process works, the role of the council and the ability local residents have to say yes or no to a project.
Rosenshein is serving his second full at-large term on the council, having first taken over halfway through another person’s term. A Charlestown resident, he works as a senior project manager for Chelsea-based The Architectural Team.
Why did you join the CNC? Specifically, there were two projects that came before the CNC very close together. One of them was Bridgeview, which at the time was proposed as a 20-story high rise, and the CNC turned it down. At around the same time the Knights of Columbus site came up. It was one of the most excruciating meetings I’ve ever seen. It was one meeting and it was all about the Knights and what they’ve done for the community, and nobody asked any questions about the actual building or the project. Going to those two meetings and watching the process from the audience was very frustrating.
I do a lot of architecture work in Boston. I go to all different neighborhoods doing projects, so I felt like there was an opportunity to provide my expertise in zoning, architecture and development to the neighborhood and make sure that there was a voice on the council that really understood how the process is supposed to work and how it works in other parts of Boston.
The Development Committee seems pretty busy lately. Would you agree? There is a lot going on. Since I joined the council, obviously we had a recession in there, which slowed a lot of things down, so it feels like there’s a lot more now than normal because there is. You start to have a backlog of four or five years worth. I think people feel that development pressure right now and they worry that, if it’s always this busy, the nature of Charlestown would change very quickly. I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re sort of in this bubble. We have several hundred residential units that will come online over the next two years but then after that we have nothing.
Many people right now are looking for a master plan for Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square and the feeling is, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get that done before all these developments move forward.’ There are no ‘all these developments.’ These projects are already all approved. They’ve just been sitting there waiting for the economy to turn.
What is the status of that Rutherford Master Plan—is it in a committee yet, or is it just an idea out there? It’s halfway between those two stages. In October of last year , the Boston Redevelopment Authority voted to approve the funding and the authorization for a master plan for Charlestown. Next they’ll have to issue a request for proposals to solicit bids from master planning companies.
What they’ve said is, we don’t want to start that process until a determination has been made on the surface or the tunnel option for Rutherford Avenue. There are real differences between those two options, so it would be a disservice to the community to get people out, have these master planning meetings, and try and have master planning for both options. You really need to wait, have the Boston Transportation Department say, OK, we’re going to go with surface or we’re going to go with the tunnel, and then the BRA has said immediately after that they’ll start the master plan process, they’ll issue the RFP.
Do you know the status of the Boston Transportation Department’s decision about Rutherford Avenue—surface versus overpass? I haven’t heard anything, and I don’t know of any official reasons, time frame or anything. I have no information as to what they’re waiting for or when they’re planning to do that.
Once they make that decision, what’s the process at that point? There was $13 million allocated, some of which they’ve used, some of which has been taken back and used for other things. But that money is allocated specifically to do design. The diagrams that they have been showing are not even close to finished designs; they’re ideas. So the next step after they make that decision is to receive authorization to spend some portion of that millions of dollars to do 25 percent design, which gets you far enough that you can then answer some of the questions I think people in the audience wanted to know—exactly how many lanes are here, how long will the traffic signal be, will it have a right arrow or a left arrow? Then you need to get that signed off by various agencies in order to access the next round of funding to do 100 percent documents, and there are public meetings along the way.
Then we run into trouble, because you can’t bid the project and get it built if you have no money. City officials have said it’s a $90 million number, or $80 million—it’s more than $50 million. There are a ton of infrastructure issues in Massachusetts. We’re on a list. We’re way down at the bottom of the list because we’re not ready to go forward yet. Then, however long it takes to get the money, once we have the money this construction project involves years of construction. This would be a five, seven-year process.
People think, well, until Rutherford is done, let’s not do anything else. Rutherford is 10 to 12 years to forever away from being done, depending on how long it takes to get the money. You can’t stop development, construction and investment in a community for 10 or 12 years.
What is the role of the CNC in the project review process? Any project in the city at any level, if it is a certain size—50,000 sq. ft. or more—it’s going to go through something called 'Article 80,' which is essentially the process the city uses to review projects. The city is obligated to create an impact advisory group. It’s supposed to be a group of residents and interested parties in the area where this project is going so that these individuals can come together and assess the impact of that project on the community.
The last time they rewrote wrote the zoning bylaws, the city made the CNC the designated impact advisory group for all of Charlestown. So rather than having different small groups of people looking at things in the Navy Yard, and then other folks looking at what’s happening on Medford Street, the CNC is responsible. So the city, legally, has to have the CNC look at a development project and render an opinion on it, both as part of the Article 80 process and as part of the zoning.
What is the review process when a new large project comes along? If a developer is interested in a piece of property, the developer would first make a presentation to the BRA, to find out if the city would even entertain the idea. When the BRA determines a project is valid enough to send to the community, they tell the developer to go to the next CNC meeting and tell us who they are and what they plan on doing. The developer makes a brief presentation and then they are sent to the Development Committee, and we then hold a series of meetings, however many it takes, to provide the community an opportunity to hear about the development and talk about any concerns they might have.
Ultimately, the CNC would then vote, yes we are in support of a project or no we are not, and we may add certain conditions. Supposedly, if we said no, the project would not move forward. If we say yes then it still has to go through a pretty extensive process with the city. At the very end of that approval process, usually the last thing you do is you go to the ZBA and you get your variances. Then you can pull a building permit and start building.
So typically we see a project at the beginning and make a determination that this is something we would be interested in as along as it stays within a certain realm. The developer goes away, they go through the entire city process and just before they go back before zoning they come back to us and say, we’re still here, because it may have been a year, it may have been three years, and along the way everybody that sees it may have asked for various changes.
What is the CNC’s ability to reject a proposal? The CNC does not have jurisdiction or authority to start or stop anything. We make a recommendation. The city can ignore it; the Zoning Board of Appeals can go in the opposite direction. If we were to say no, it doesn’t stop the developer from going to the Zoning Board. It just means that in all the material they present one piece of material that shows no support from the community.
A recent example: Domino's Pizza came to town, made a presentation, the CNC voted ‘no,’ they went to the Licensing Board, the board voted yes, and Domino's Pizza is now open on Main Street. So the city does not necessarily listen to what we say.
If you say no to a project, whether it’s early on or at that later stage and the city says, ‘We’re going to move it forward anyway,’ they don’t have to come back to us because we’ve already said no. We no longer have the ability to say we want 20 percent of the workers to be from Charlestown and we want union construction and we want the following. We’ve opted out of the conversation.
I personally believe that the community is better served by participating in these conversations, and if a project is going to go forward I feel like it’s better to work with the developer and try to craft that project to the greatest benefit of the community rather than opt out of the conversation and hope that the city will take care of us.
What is the best way for a resident to get involved with a development project? I think a lot of times people don’t find out about or they forget about a project that the CNC sees at the beginning. When they really become aware of it is when they get the zoning notice in the mail and say, now I want to be engaged in this process. But the CNC has already said, ‘We think this is something interesting.’ Maybe the project has gone away, it’s changed, it’s come back to us—at that point it’s much harder to say no. The city has done all of this work, the developer has invested all of his time and money, they have banking behind them, they have the support of many individuals and entities.
By then a lot of times residents feel, ‘Well, this was a done deal.’ It wasn’t a done deal, but you’re coming into a conversation three-quarters of the way through it. It’s already had a tentative yes. Now they’re coming back to confirm that yes; they’re not looking to start over. Does that mean we have to say yes? No. But it’s harder, because if they’ve done everything that we’ve asked, how do you change your mind about that?
There’s no one format that you can apply to every project. The best way to understand the process is to come to the CNC or to reach out to your representative from the CNC early and then just keep asking—What’s going on with this project, what’s the status, what is the next step, when is the next meeting?