Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NEIGHBORHOODS: Neighbors question Hancock Village expansion figures

Increase in units raises concerns

More than 100 people packed a meeting room at the Public Library of Brookline’s Putterham Branch on Monday night to question two analyses of a revised proposal that would nearly double the number of apartments at Hancock Village.

The 1948 development has about 530 apartments in low-rise town houses off Independence Drive and VFW Parkway in the southern section of Brookline.

The latest plan by its owner, Chestnut Hill Realty, would add 466 apartments to the property: 84 in two-story buildings around the perimeter of the 80-acre site, 162 in two four-story buildings, and 220 in a five- to seven-story building restricted to older adults.

The town and the developer both issued reports in October analyzing the project’s fiscal impact, and both found that the apartments would add between 23 and 33 students to the school district, and that the proposal would be financially advantageous or at worse neutral for Brookline.

Neighbors taking part in Monday’s session disputed several of the assumptions underlying those estimates.

The current plan, like one proposed last year, involves a zoning change that would require two-thirds approval at Town Meeting, which some consider unlikely given the vocal neighborhood opposition.

But as the real estate company made clear in an even more unpopular version submitted to the town in late September, it has the right to build something on the property.

“The developer believes that he can develop on that site,’’ said Joe Geller, a former selectman representing Chestnut Hill Realty. “Something will be built there; we are here to make it better, but you may still not agree with it.’’

Town officials also say the developer will be able to build on the site.

“There’s no doubt the developer has some development rights, although it’s hard to say what because of the millions of variables,’’ said Jeff Levine, director of the town’s Planning Department.

At the meeting Monday, neighbors weren’t talking about making the plan better. The atmosphere was best summed up by David Aronson, when he suggested the discussion move faster.

“Please move to your fictional fiscal impact analysis, because we need time to attack that also,’’ he said, drawing a laugh from the audience.

Selectwoman Nancy Daly opened the meeting by announcing that the town was not promoting the development, and was concerned about its effect on the already overcrowded Baker School, which is nearly adjacent to Hancock Village. Last school year, Hancock Village sent 306 students to the Baker School, according to Geller.

But town officials note that even a tough special-permit process cannot take school enrollment into account.

“We cannot legally prohibit development because our schools are too crowded,’’ Daly said.

Selectman Ken Goldstein, a lawyer and former Planning Board chairman, told the meeting that the age restrictions on the seven-story building could be either 80 percent restricted to households with one member older than 55, or 100 percent with one member over 62.

But Alisa Jonas pointed out that many parents of children at the Baker School might qualify for the less-restrictive housing, and that 20 percent of age-restricted units would mean 44 two-bedroom units that younger families might eagerly fill.

Geller said that Chestnut Hill Realty was open to discussing either range of age restrictions.

But according to the analysis by the town’s lawyer, such a restriction could be legally void after 30 years (by deed restriction), or might be overturned if the landlord could show hardship (under special permit), unless the restriction is made into a zoning change, again requiring a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting as well as approval by the state.

Geller stated that higher rents for the new apartments would also dissuade families from living there.

Jonas scoffed at that notion. The town’s analysis uses comparison properties that are closer to other amenities, like shopping, entertainment, and public transit, and farther from good schools.

“These units will be most attractive to whom?’’ she said. “Not single adults. Families with kids.’’

Neighbors also disputed the developer’s estimates of traffic created by the new housing, and questioned whether closing off most of the approaches to Hancock Village was an improvement.

They also disliked drawings showing more parking in what is green space that serves as a buffer between neighbors and the town houses.

Daly said the town has engaged an expert in mediating land-use disputes for a yet-to-be-scheduled neighborhood meeting with the developer.

Andreae Downs Boston Globe December 19, 2010

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