Planning Board: offices and parking at Brookline Place

A weekly meeting of the Planning Board on Thursday, April 10, started at 7:00 pm in the northern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Topics included several zoning changes being proposed at the annual town meeting in May. There was nearly a roomful of observers, many interested in the Brookline Place commercial area in Brookline Village, which is bounded by Boylston St., Brookline Ave. and Pearl St.

Kara Brewton, the town’s economic development director, reviewed proposals for Brookline Place that have been discussed with representatives of Children’s Hospital, the potential developer. They envision an 8-story office building for 2 Brookline Place, replacing two older, low-rise commercial structures near the corner of Boylston St. and Pearl St. That would be taller than any commercial building now found in the Village area, although its impact would be reduced somewhat by lower land elevation, adjacent to MBTA trolley tracks.

There is also expected to be a taller parking garage at the site of the modern, 3-level garage near the bend of Pearl St. A modern 6-story office complex, near the corner of Boylston St. and Brookline Ave., and an older, 2-story former water department garage, at the corner of Brookline Ave. and Pearl St., are expected to remain. The old water department would become the only historic building left at Brookline Place.

Apparently some fancy footwork with zoning is being hatched. Parking requirements are now being evaluated for the whole Brookline Place development, not just the new office building. Although current zoning requires underground parking for new offices, town planners propose that Children’s Hospital somehow be allowed a taller above-ground parking garage, up to 65 feet high.

Opposition from some Village residents was clear, although perhaps it was not as vehement as in past years. Merelice, a Precinct 6 town meeting member who lives about two blocks away on White Place, urged the Planning Board to remember that the proposed development is adjacent to a family neighborhood. She is also concerned for at least six mature trees that may be removed to build new offices. Plans presented showed a pedestrian path through the site, connecting the MBTA trolley station with Boylston St., so it might be possible to preserve two or more trees that look to be near the proposed path.

Redevelopment of the Brookline Place block has already spanned around 50 years. Most of the area bounded by Kent St., Station St., Washington St., Boylston St., Brookline Ave., and Aspinwall Ave. was taken by eminent domain in the 1960s. The former Brookline Redevelopment Authority called┬áthis area┬áthe Marsh Project–designated for mixed residential and commercial redevelopment–and used federal funds available in those days. Hearthstone Plaza–located at the most prominent corner, Washington St. and Boylston St.–opened in the early 1970s. Affordable housing along Kent St. and Village Way–307 units known as The Village at Brookline–soon followed. However, the B-2 parcel, as it was then known, languished for many years–little improved.

The redevelopment authority was dissolved in the mid-1980s, and regular town staff continued to work on the B-2 parcel. Finally, in the late 1980s, the former Harvard Community Health Plan was recruited to build its main offices on the B-2 parcel, and the block became known as Brookline Place. Harvard Community was then growing rapidly. In 1995, it merged with Pilgrim Health Care. Soon the Brookline location no longer offered enough space for Harvard Pilgrim, and Brookline Place lost its flagship occupant to Wellesley.

Much of the discussion at the Planning Board meeting concerned parking. The current development has 355 spaces for 105,000 square feet of offices. As presented on Thursday, the new development would include a total of 683 spaces after adding 182,500 square feet more in offices. That would reduce the ratio of on-site parking to office space from about 3.4 to only 2.4 spaces per thousand square feet. At the meeting, real estate consultants were quoted who question, regardless of zoning requirements, whether Brookline Place would remain marketable at prime rents.

Brookline planners seem to be responding in part to concerns of Village residents, who were not enthusiastic about a massive parking garage. The planners are trying to justify reducing the parking ratio by requiring some sort of active transportation management that would promote use of the MBTA trolley and bus routes 60, 65 and 66, which stop along Boylston St. The meeting left that looking like a high-risk approach, lacking firm assurance on whether there would be enough use of public transportation.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 11, 2014

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