Zoning Board of Appeals: Chapter 40B project at Hancock Village

The Zoning Appeals Board held a continued hearing on Thursday, June 19, over a proposed Chapter 40B housing project at the site of Hancock Village, along Independence Drive in the Putterham neighborhood of south Brookline. Hancock Village began as a model development built just after World War II, originally for returning veterans, by the John Hancock Insurance Company under an agreement with the Town of Brookline.

Renamed Westbrook Village in the 1960s, after it was sold to a division of Niles Realty, the spacious, garden apartment development has since been renamed Hancock Village and is owned by Chestnut Hill Realty of 300 Independence Drive in West Roxbury. Partly in Brookline and partly in West Roxbury, Hancock Village has become Brookline’s lowest-density multiple apartment district–the sole application of what is currently called M-0.5 zoning. Chestnut Hill Realty’s most recent proposal is the Chapter 40B plan of June 5, 2014.

As illustrated on a site view available from the Planning Department, the current proposal has a C-shaped, 5-story apartment building, about 450 x 200 ft on diagonals, located from about 300 to about 750 ft west of Russett Rd., and nine 3-story structures, each about 83 x 46 ft, chocked into current greensward behind houses along Beverly Rd. and Russett Rd. The large building is to sit at the end of a relocated private way extending Asheville Rd. beside 284 Russett Rd. into the property. Plans are said to total 184 new units but fail to list how many units each new building is to contain.

Participants: Board members at this hearing were Jesse Geller, the board’s chair, Christopher Hussey, Jonathan Book, Mark Zuroff and Avi Liss. Board member Johanna Schneider was not at the hearing. Also present with the board were Samuel Nagler, legal counsel, and Edith Netter, consultant. Theodore Touloukian, principal in Touloukian and Touloukian, architects of Boston, presented a design review prepared on contract to the board. Last year his firm was responsible for renovation of a building housing Foodie’s Market in the South End, formerly American Nut.

Steven Schwartz, a lawyer from Goulston & Storrs, and Joseph Geller, a landscape architect and former member of the Board of Selectmen, represented Chestnut Hill Realty. Maria Morelli, a consultant for the Neighborhood Conservation District Commission, helped organize the hearing. Polly Selkoe, assistant director for regulatory planning at the Planning Department, attended the hearing but did not participate in an official capacity.

The Planning Board sent no representative. There is nothing to keep it from appointing a design advisory team with neighborhood representation, as it has done for many other proposals including the recent, controversial Brookline Place. However, it did not do that, and so far it has taken a low-profile public role in recent reviews.

Without a background of well structured citizen participation, the appeals board had obvious difficulties managing an adequate process. The hearing floundered. Participants failed to identify themselves and spoke in erratic succession, some in code-words. It may well have confused members of the public and proved less useful than it might have to the appeals board.

Plans or no plans: There was a discussion about what kind of plans the Board of Appeals needs for its review and what Chestnut Hill Realty is willing to provide. Mr. Touloukian said the June 5 proposal has major changes to “building footprints…and elevations.” Mr. Hussey of the board, also an architect, said a physical model was the best way to convey the proposed development in the context of its surroundings. Polly Selkoe, from the Planning Department, commented that Brookline’s zoning bylaw requires such a model.

Mr. Schwartz, the lawyer representing Chestnut Hill Realty, acknowledged that Mr. Touloukian had asked for a model and said a “digital” model–that is, one displayed by a computer program–would be made available. Mr. Joseph Geller, the landscape architect representing Chestnut Hill Realty, said it would “update the information” from the previous proposal.

Chestnut Hill Realty’s model must be viewed by using an Autodesk software product called “3ds Max,” priced at $3,675 for the basic version, plus support fees. Mr. Touloukian said that was an acceptable approach for him. Mr. Schwartz urged speedy action by the board, saying, “We feel we’ve submitted everything required by 760 CMR”–referring to state regulations for a Chapter 40B project.

Professional “peer review”: Mr. Touloukian said his review was not finished, because Chestnut Hill’s architects had not yet sent him the revised model. He told the board he had no commitment about when it would be available. Illustrating with recent photos of proposed development sites within Hancock Village, he described the process for his review.

Mr. Touloukian said he will aim at (1) understanding land use guidelines, (2) integrating site access into the neighborhood, (3) respecting natural resources, (4) screening parking areas, (5) buffering edges, (6) blending with existing development patterns, (7) relating scale and proportion to the project’s context and (8) reviewing architectural detail.

Voices from the public: Mr. Jesse Geller of the appeals board asked for public questions and comments. Alisa Jonas, a Precinct 16 town meeting member, asked about consideration of historic preservation and of the neighborhood conservation district enacted in 2011. Ms. Netter said developers can seek overrides of town laws.

Stephen Chiumenti, a Precinct 16 town meeting member and an abutter to Hancock Village who lives on Russett Rd., insisted Mr. Touloukian’s “land use guidelines” not be restricted to zoning but also include the Hancock Village Neighborhood Conservation District and the 1940s agreements to build Hancock Village. Mr. Nagler described the Chapter 40B process as a “balancing test,” saying that “local rules” will be considered.

Betsy DeWitt, a member of the Board of Selectmen, asked about impact of a National Historic Register listing for Hancock Village. Ms. Netter said that issue was “not within Zoning Board of Appeals jurisdiction.” Ms. DeWitt pressed on, saying, “Someone needs to request a Section 106 review.” Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. Brookline’s appeals board is clearly not a federal agency.

William Pu, a Precinct 16 town meeting member, objected, saying, “None of us have the software to view the plan.” He stated that “time pressure is self-imposed.” Mr. Hussey asked the developer representatives about illustrating the proposed development in its context, “Can’t you take snapshots?” He asked the audience, “Can someone from the neighborhood indicate what views you would like to see?”

Vague views: There was no direct response. Mr. Hussey had previously said he was “not sure we need such a complete set of drawings as the first submission.” Judith Leichtner, a Precinct 16 town meeting member, expressed concern that, regardless of the approach, whatever emerged “won’t be seen until a meeting at the end of July.” Mr. Joseph Geller, representing Chestnut Hill Realty, said, “We’ll get it as soon as we can get it done.” However, he conceded he does “not know how to distribute” the results. Apparently no town department uses 3ds Max software.

Discussion lurched back and forth among members of the board, representatives of Chestnut Hill Realty and audience participants. There were mentions of a “site walkthrough,” of “staking the site” and of stringing up balloons to suggest building elevations. Mr. Hussey spoke last, saying it was “really the massing of the buildings that matters” but not saying how he could describe that.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, June 20, 2014


Andreae Downs, Brookline town meeting makes Hancock Village the town’s first neighborhood conservation district, Boston Globe, November 16, 2011

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