Economic Development Advisory: skeptical about proposals

Two proposals for commercial development drew some skepticism from the Economic Development Advisory Board on Monday, October 6. An audience of over 30 gathered in the first floor north meeting room at Town Hall, starting at 7 pm. Local business operator and real estate investor Raj Dhanda described the projects, each with its own set of architects and advisors.

Offices in Chestnut Hill: The more developed of the projects aims to place a four-story office building at 1180 Boylston, on the southeast corner where Hammond St. intersects Route 9. For many years, the site housed a large Exxon service station, now gone, diagonally opposite the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center. The proposed development would provide retail space on the first floor.

As described by Haril A. Pandya of CBT Architects, Boston, the structure would have about 36,000 sf of gross floor area for office space and 12,000 sf for retail space, with two levels of underground parking and around 50 spaces. Located on a plot of about 14,600 sf, that yields a floor area ratio of 3.3. For over 50 years, the parcel has been zoned G-1.0, general business with a maximum floor area ratio of 1.0.

Nearby commercial property is low-rise, mixed among a few older 3-decker houses. The proposed development would be far more dense. Brookline has only two types of zoning that could allow it: G-1.75(LSH), designed for the Marriott hotel site at 40 Webster St. in Coolidge Corner, and GMR-2.0, designed for the 2 Brookline Place site now under development by Children’s Hospital, near the intersection of Washington St. with Route 9. Economic Development Advisory was involved in both projects, whose planning and rezoning each took several years.

Unanswered questions: Board member Robert Sperber, who organized Economic Development Advisory over 20 years ago, asked for the projections of Brookline tax revenue from the development, always the board’s prime concern. Astoundingly, Mr. Dhanda and his advisors said they had none. “It would be a lot,” one claimed. Board members asked about the prospective retail and office tenants and about traffic and environmental studies. Again, there were no clear answers. As to financial potential, Mr. Dhanda simply said, “It’s good.”

Board members Kenneth Lewis and Donald Warner questioned plans to site vehicle access on the heavily congested Hammond St. side. Mr. Lewis called the parking ratio “extreme,” only about one space per 1,000 sf. The offices might house more than 300 people but provide parking for fewer than 50. Mr. Panya of CBT said the area was “well served” by public transportation. MBTA bus 60, between Kenmore Sq. and Newton, stops about twice an hour on average. A station for the D branch of the Green Line is about four blocks away, with about 100 parking spaces. Pedestrian facilities are spartan. It is a suburban location, dominated by cars.

A 10-story hotel at Coolidge Corner: Mr. Dhanda next proposed to build a 10-story hotel at 1299 Beacon St., currently occupied by his lamp store, Neena’s. To the east is the one-story Brookline post office. To the west is the 1986, three-story Center Place office building, with Trader Joe’s on the ground floor. The proposed development would be self-contained, providing no retail, office or public spaces and no landscaping.

As described by Harold F. Wheeler of Group One Partners, architects in South Boston, the structure would house about 160 hotel rooms, 60 parking spaces on two underground levels, a lobby, a food service, meeting rooms, a small swimming pool and an exercise room. The plot has less than 60 ft of Beacon St. frontage, making the proposed building narrow, stretching over a current, small parking lot to Sewall Ave. in back.

Neighboring commercial buildings all have one, two or three stories. The 1924 Pelham Hall, across Beacon Street, has eight stories, and the wider area within several blocks has other residential buildings up to 13 stories. A crude outline of a looming, narrow tower suggested window walls facing east and west, looking up and down Beacon St. The proposed building was described as 140,000 sf gross floor area for hotel uses, plus parking.

Located on a plot of about 18,600 sf, the proposed hotel space yields a floor area ratio of 7.5. Numbers do not seem to be a strong suit for Mr. Dhanda and his advisers, who claimed that the floor area ratio would be about 6. For many years, the parcel has been zoned G-1.75(CC), general business with a maximum floor area ratio of 1.75. Developers of large lots in the zone who support community facilities are eligible for up to a 15 percent bonus in floor area, but the lot at 1299 Beacon St. is too small to qualify.

Brookline has no current type of zoning that would allow the proposed development. Window walls on the sides of a building in a G zone sound unwise and might not be allowed. Properties in those zones can be built to the lot lines. In the future, one or more of Mr. Dhanda’s commercial neighbors might also build to the lot lines, wiping out window views.

More unanswered questions: Dr. Sperber again asked for the projections of Brookline tax revenue from the development, including local taxes on hotel rooms. All Mr. Dhanda offered was that Brookline would receive more than the current property taxes of about $60,000 a year. Several members of the board and the audience questioned traffic plans. Mr. Wheeler said parking would operate with valet service, using large elevators. He did not address frequent, heavy congestion on Sewall Ave.

As with Mr. Dhanda’s other proposal, there had been no traffic or environmental study. Board member Donald Warner said that while economics for a hotel were likely to be strong, “the key is making the numbers work. That [10-story] height isn’t going to happen.” David-Marc Goldstein, a Precinct 8 town meeting member, recalled that the height and density allowed for Coolidge Corner commercial properties had been reduced. To carry out the proposal, he said, “you would have to change the zoning in town meeting, which you won’t have the votes for.”

Variances: Unlike developers of Brookline Place and of hotels on Webster St. and at the former Red Cab site on Boylston St., Mr. Dhanda and his architects and advisors turned confrontational. Rather than negotiate and work cooperatively with Brookline on zoning, economics and environment, they said they planned to seek variances, under Chapter 40A of Massachusetts General Laws.

Variances can be approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals, but requirements are difficult to satisfy, and they have become increasingly rare. Instead, Brookline has developed an extensive system of special permits in its zoning, through which additional building height and density can be approved when developers agree to provide specific public benefits. Mr. Dhanda did not seem familiar with town’s approach to planning and development.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, October 7, 2014


Zoning Bylaw, Town of Brookline, MA, June 2, 2014

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