The Walsh administration wants to build 69,000 new units of housing in Boston by 2030, and meeting that goal could hardly be more critical to the city’s future. Too bad South Boston, and a few members of its political power structure, seem determined to get in the way.
Case in point, 776 Summer Street, which has the potential to become a whole new neighborhood at what is now an abandoned power plant — if only local politicians would stop trying to obstruct it. Bowing to neighborhood critics worried about traffic, developers recently submitted a new alternative plan for this massive 15-acre development project near the South Boston waterfront that could eliminate any new housing at all.
That would be a travesty.
When the redevelopment of the old Boston Edison plant was originally proposed more than two years ago, it was largely residential with 1,700 new housing units and many of the amenities those residents would need to make the site a real community. All of that was to be phased in over 12 to 15 years.
But, in a second iteration, that plan was scaled back to a little over 1,300 apartments and condos. It would still include 74 on-site housing ownership opportunities and the creation of 101 affordable rental units. An additional $4.75 million in linkage would fund more off-site affordable housing.
Even so, the yelling from South Boston’s pols could be heard from City Hall (that would be Councilors Michael Flaherty and Ed Flynn) to Beacon Hill, where state Senator Nick Collins and state Representative David Biele even threatened to halt the approval process through legislation.
The developers, Hilco and Redgate Capital Partners, heard the threats loud and clear. They could continue to bang their heads against a political wall and still hope that the Boston Planning and Development Agency would do the right thing. Or they could bow to the ill-advised but seeming inevitable.
Too often this is how business gets done in this city. And not all of those who make threats — because they do so in a very public way — end up in federal court.
So late last month the developers filed not one, but two new plans for the neighbors, the local pols, and the BPDA to gnaw on. One still contains a fair amount of housing — 750 new units, about 16 percent of which would be affordable. The rest would be office, research and development, retail, 344 hotel rooms, and 5.5 acres of “outdoor public spaces,” including 2.5 acres of open space on the waterfront.
It’s incredibly sad that 550 units of housing — in a city that cries out for more — just vanished in a puff of politically driven smoke.
But it gets worse.
The developers also have a Plan B — with no housing at all. Instead they would fill the space with offices, more research and development options, retail, and a 474-room hotel. Not that any of that would make one iota of difference in the traffic issues the local politicians say they are so worried about. But a cynic might say it would certainly solve the problem of trying to appeal to all those new constituents.
Sure, there is the issue of whether Massport would sign off on the residential component, which would be essential under a 2014 agreement designed to protect the nearby Conley Container Terminal. But thus far the agency remains in discussions with the developer and has not raised an objection.
Walsh has also remained neutral, although reiterating in a recent statement he “considers housing as a priority.”
Developers will, of course, do well no matter what — assuming they can get something off the ground before the next recession hits. Building trades will also do just fine whether those buildings are offices or residential complexes. But while Boston has been meeting its intermediate housing targets, it’s still almost 40,000 housing units short of its 2030 goal — and a city with a chronic housing shortage risks losing its best and brightest.
That’s the big picture here. And the big picture ought to be enough to overcome small-minded objections.