On Wednesday evening, July 8, representatives of the Kehillath Israel congregation announced at a public meeting held at the site that they were starting real estate development, in two parts. Part 1 renovates the synagogue building, dedicated in 1925, and adds about 10,000 square feet of support space on the north side. Part 2 builds an undisclosed amount of partly subsidized new housing, replacing the community center opened in 1948 and using Chapter 40B of the General Laws to override Brookline zoning.
Rabbi William Hamilton opened the meeting, saying the congregation was planning for a next century. The membership has shrunk from a peak of around 1,200 families in the 1950s to around 400 now. He introduced Joseph Geller, a landscape architect and developer, member of the congregation, Precinct 9 town meeting member and former member of the Board of Selectmen, who led most of the discussions.
Mr. Geller introduced Robert L. “Bobby” Allen, Jr., a local real estate lawyer, Precinct 16 town meeting member and former member of the Board of Selectmen with whom Mr. Geller served. Mr. Allen is representing the congregation’s legal interests in development plans. Asked about potential disruptions from pursuing development while nearby Devotion School is being rebuilt, Mr. Allen merely said it could be “a problem.”
According to Alison Steinfeld, Brookline’s director of community planning and development, about a year ago Mr. Allen met with members of the department for an initial discussion. Ms. Steinfeld said she did not know the amounts of housing Kehillath Israel might have in mind. Such a discussion, as well as such a meeting as happened July 8, are among steps in Brookline’s design review process for any development on Harvard St.
Location, location: Stories about a potential large housing development have circulated around nearby neighborhoods for many months, with a wide range of speculation about locations, amounts, sizes and heights. The presentation on July 8 settled only location: space now occupied by the community center, which representatives of the congregation called the “Epstein building.”
The current community center’s building outline is about 120 by 65 feet, plus a depth of about 30 feet for front entry and steps. If there were to be no further incursions past those perimeters, that could provide a gross area near 10,000 square feet per floor. A modern 4-story building, similar in overall height to the community center, might house around 40 medium-size apartments.
North Brookline neighborhoods have had two previous experiences with 40B developments. A private developer near the synagogue substantially scaled back initial plans and built a double wood-frame quadruplex at 107A through 113B Centre St. in the late 1990s, replacing a large house. Occupancy of these condominium units has proven fairly transient, with turnovers every several years.
After about seven years of disputes and negotiations, the development arm of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston scaled back initial plans for the former St. Aidan’s Church by about 60 percent and put up mostly modern, fireproof new construction around 2008. However, adaptive reuse, unprecedented for the Archdiocese, placed several apartments inside the historic church structure and preserved the large courtyard at the corner of Pleasant and Freeman Sts. and its huge copper beech tree.
Senior housing: Mr. Geller said Kehillath Israel was planning “senior housing”–favorable for a community in which escalating costs of public schools have been driving up budgets, leading to tax overrides passed this year and in 2008. While age-restricted housing is clearly a form of discrimination, under some conditions it is allowed by laws and regulations.
Massachusetts has had antidiscrimination housing laws for many years. They were partly subsumed by the federal Fair Housing Act, Title 8 of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (PL 90-284). The original version of the law prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in the sale and rental of dwellings. Other protected categories have been added.
Section 4 of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B, “Unlawful Discrimination,” prohibits discrimination because of race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, age, ancestry, veteran status, sexual orientation, marital status, children, handicap and receipt of public assistance or housing subsidy in the selling, renting or leasing of housing accommodations, commercial space or land intended for those uses. Fines are up to $50,000 per violation. Massachusetts regulations in 804 CMR 02 implement the law.
One of the few general exceptions in housing discrimination laws has allowed, after 1988, qualified “senior housing” developments, as modified under the federal Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995 (PL 104–76). Such a qualification requires 80 percent of dwellings to be occupied by at least one person who is 55 years of age or older. The federal qualification can be lost if that operating status is not maintained.
The Kehillath Israel congregation would almost surely be able to qualify a development as “senior housing.” Asked how the congregation might guarantee that “senior housing” will continue to qualify and operate that way, Mr. Geller said he expected there would be a continuing agreement with the Town of Brookline. By contrast, the management at Hancock Village in south Brookline has been moving away from “senior housing,” actively marketing to mostly foreign families with children. They are not planning “senior housing” as a part of their current Chapter 40B housing project in Brookline.
When a religious organization sponsors housing, some assume members and affiliates of the organization will become occupants or may be favored. Occupants of new housing at the Kehillath Israel site need not be Jewish or otherwise share some background that might tend to exclude people protected against discrimination. During controversy over redevelopment of the former St. Aidan’s Church, at least some former parishioners seemed convinced they would be favored to occupy new apartments there. Since that did not agree with housing laws and regulations, it did not happen.
– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, July 9, 2015
Fair housing regulation, Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, 2015
Town elections: tax override for schools passes, Brookline Beacon, May 5, 2015
Craig Bolon, Hancock Village: development pressures, Brookline Beacon, February 22, 2015