Public comment turned the tide at two public hearings last week, again demonstrating the importance of our showing up and speaking up on matters large and small that affect the quality of life in our area. Encouraging greater civic engagement is central to our group’s mission to raise the level and quality of public discourse on neighborhood planning and development issues.
75 New Street: Case Continued Again
On Tuesday, September 16th, the Planning Board resumed its consideration of the 93-unit project at 75 New Street, and once again did not make make a decision, continuing the case to a fifth hearing (to be scheduled within the next 60 days). Those who attended the prior hearing in late July may recall that some members had declared the project “ready to go” apart from a few loose ends. This time, the members expressed a lot of reservations about the building’s design, especially its massing, its roofline silhouette, and its relation to the street front and to its noisy and malodorous commercial abutters (Hi Tech Auto Body and Whole Foods). The developer was asked to rethink and address these concerns and to come to the next hearing with more detailed street elevations and with a scale or virtual reality model.
There is significant progress on several fronts:
- Chair Hugh Russell seems to have rediscovered the Board’s discretionary power to set the bar higher for developers seeking special permits, asserting to AdodeZ: “I don’t think you have the right to max out on every single aspect of the zoning.” He even suggested that the developer might have to “lose some units” in order to meet the urban design guidelines for the area. In the public comment period Councillor Dennis Carlone called on the Board to show leadership on requiring that these urban design guidelines be a requirement under the ordinance. “The design guidelines should be in the zoning…you’re the experts. The Council wants to hear from you on this,” he said.
- Models may be required for all large projects from now on. Our group had asked for a model last month, but was told it was optional. In fact, models used to be required, and we are glad to see the Board call for their return.
- Kathy Watkins, the chief engineer at DPW, announced that the city is now fully committed to redesigning all of New Street and to providing continuous sidewalks along the non-park side. She said that funding is available and the improvements will begin next summer, following a public process, slated to begin this fall, on the details of the design. Creating a safe pedestrian route through the shopping center’s parking lot remains a challenge, to say the least, but this is a big step forward from prior talk of incrementally improving the sidewalks over time as each New Street parcel was redeveloped.
355 Fresh Pond Parkway: Request for Sign Variance Withdrawn
On Thursday, September 18th, the Board of Zoning Appeals showed little inclination to approve the Bank of America’s request to install a second illuminated sign on the new(ish) retail building at 355 Fresh Pond Parkway (formerly the site of Fresh Pond Seafood), prompting the applicant to withdraw its request rather than have it denied and face a two-year waiting period to reapply.
The bank used up its permitted sign area (60 square feet) with its prominent sign on the building’s south-facing prow, and was seeking a variance to install another large wall sign on the façade facing the parkway. Our comments and those of several others convinced the BZA that allowing additional signage might encourage drivers coming from the north to make an illegal left turn into the parking lot, and that the bank faced no hardship in not having additional signage. The BZA agreed with residents that it would set a poor precedent to grant a variance that would contribute to the cacophony of non-conforming signs in the parkway district — referred to by some as “sign alley.”
A few observations following the BZA hearing:
- BZA Chair Constantine Alexander remarked that before the hearing he had assumed there would be no objection to this variance and that it would be approved. However, it would have been very easy for us to have overlooked or missed this hearing entirely, because the BZA’s antiquated and inadequate public notice procedures tend to limit public awareness.
- Unlike the Planning Board, the BZA does not post application materials online, and written notice normally only goes to abutters. In this case, the abutters on either side included two gas stations that were hardly going to object to their neighbor’s request to join the parade of sign offenders. Members of the public interested in knowing what relief is being sought are asked to make a trip to the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) in Central Square to look at various applications. This must change; there is absolutely no reason why the BZA cannot upload pdfs to a website for the public’s review.
- Enforcement of the sign ordinance is woefully lacking in the parkway district, and the bank and other tenants of this retail building have been taking advantage of ISD’s lax enforcement to put up “temporary” flags, banners and window signs along the parkway month after month. They are certainly not the only offenders, as commercial signage along Fresh Pond Parkway makes a mockery of the sign code.