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In rejecting JP building, zoning board was following city size guidelines

Tuesday's ZBA vote to reject a Centre Street proposal with two-bedroom units as small as 667 square feet didn't just come out of thin air: The BPDA, which sets so many of the requirements and guidelines related to development in Boston, says those are simply too small for new apartments and condos in the city.

The zoning board also took into consideration how Kenneth Zou's building would - or wouldn't - fit in with the existing building neighborhood that surrounds it.

Current BPDA guidelines call for two-bedroom units in outer neighborhoods such as Jamaica Plain to have at least 900 square feet of space - with 750 square feet the minimum size for one-bedroom units and 500 for studios. The largest of the units landlord Kenneth Zou proposed for his building was 777 square feet - which is why board Chairwoman Christine Araujo expressed surprise at the hearing when Zou said all his units would have two bedrooms and not be studios.

Developers of "transit-oriented" projects get some leeway on unit sizes, but even then, Zou's proposed units, which would sit on the route of the 39 bus, would be too small. In "transit-oriented" buildings, the BPDA wants to see two-bedroom units of at least 850 square feet.

The proposal - eight apartments atop two commercial spaces - was too small for formal review by the BPDA, which only takes a detailed look at proposals with more than 15 units. But the zoning board has long used its unit sizes as a guideline in its hearings.

Even with smaller projects such as this, the BPDA typically gives a more informal "design review" at the request of the zoning board, which also became part of the reason the zoning board rejected this proposal.

Board member Anthony Pisani, who moved to deny approval based in part on the size of the units, also moved to reject the project because he did not feel BPDA review would do anything about the project fitting into the neighborhood "context" - it called for a building that would take up too much of its parcel and possibly block visibility for some motorists taking a turn there, and looks like yet another one of those blocky cube-things sprouting all over the city, in a part of Jamaica Plain more noted for its tree-lined streets and Victorians and other older homes.

Board Chairwoman Christine Araujo pointed to a building now going up at 7 Burroughs St., just off Centre Street, as an example of what the board is trying to avoid in this specific area.

"That is just completely out of context, too, so that is like a warning to us," she told Zou about the Burroughs Street building, which, while just around the corner from the commercial part of Centre Street, is also on a tree-lined street full of large single-family homes, the impact on which the board had hoped BPDA "design review" would lessen.

The board rejected Zou's proposal "without prejudice," which means he can come back with new plans that would meet the board objections.

Architect's rendering of Burroughs Street building, now nearing completion:

Burroughs Street building
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Comments

I went down to the zoning office at 1010 Mass. Ave. this morning, but the rendering is still somewhere in transit between City Hall and 1010. As soon as it turns up, I'll get a copy and post it.

As for why I wrote this post after the first one, well, the first one was a bit too simplistic and, based on the comments on it, might have made it sound like the zoning board was being completely arbitrary when, in fact, it was working off some very specific guidelines, at least for unit size.

Whether those dimensions makes sense in a city with a housing crisis for people making less than stratospheric salaries is a good question, but that's an issue for people elsewhere in City Hall to grapple with, not what is sort of a judicial body that has to figure out how to apply the guideline and regulations developed by others (like the mayor and the BPDA).

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Look up 33 copeland street in roxbury and tell me if they follow guidelines. ZBA is an arbitrary political tool for the current administration that picks and chooses who they want to make rich.

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I have to say I like the look of this building. It looks way better than the approved design for the refurbish of the hotel at Washington and Mass Ave in the South End. I remember saying it looked awful and was attacked on here. I'd say this building fits in with it's surrounding neighborhood rather than the one in the South End. Again, the ZBA is ARBITRARY! Rules are not rules but institutionalized excuses when someone or something doesn't fit their mold.

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The rendering pictured is not the building that was rejected, but rather another one that is currently under construction around the corner.

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This "neighborhood context" argument reeks of BS. There is already a 7 story building on Centre Street a few blocks away. It didn't destroy JP. Shouldn't there be buildings with commercial space on a commercial street like Centre?

The new Burroughs Street building is way more attractive and useful than the huge parking lot next to it and the garage it replaced. Would they also complain if one of the many disgusting Centre Street gas stations was turned into a nice looking building? You can't disrupt the "context" so I guess we are stuck with an empty gas station forever, right?

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Voting closed 24

Why should the BPDA have a say into the square footage / layout within an apartment's walls? That's not a neighborhood issue.

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Actually, it kind of is - because different sizes and layouts of apartments will attract different prospective tenants.

Also, minimum square footage for apartments is a quality of life issue that the government definitely needs to regulate. I know I don't want Boston's housing crisis to be "solved" by the introduction of a bunch of tiny Hong Kong-style closet apartments. That's why the BPDA cares about square footage.

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Voting closed 16

Except the premise appears to be that a large 2-bedroom and a small 2-bedroom will attract the SAME prospective tenants. If you compare a large 1-bedroom and small 2-bedroom, then yes those attract different tenants, and different family sizes, and have different neighborhood impact.

I still don't understand why a city planning agency needs a say into unit dimensions. That definitely can be a concern for ISD, but not BRA. It's kind of like the Licensing Board regulating the width of a barstool or saltiness of a margarita glass.

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Most post war 3br houses in the burbs are that size.

Yes, size matters. No, this size is not linked in any way to health or wellbeing - it is a ridiculous profit center for builders.

No data, studies, or evidence went into that size limit - profit$$$ were all that mattered.

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Voting closed 10

I never said anything about these specific numbers, and neither did the person I was replying to.

I just pointed out why minimum square footage needs to be regulated. It seems you agree with me. Direct your outrage elsewhere.

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Also, minimum square footage for apartments is a quality of life issue that the government definitely needs to regulate.

Then it should do so using FACTS and ANALYSIS not as a means of excluding the "wrong" people with overly expensive space.

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These are not closet apartments, and the sizes being discussed are nowhere near small enough to constitute a quality of life hazard.

700 sq-ft is close to the average household size in Sweden, Italy, and the U.K.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/average-home-size-by-...

Those are averages over a whole country. Of course a young couple or a pair of roommates who want to live near a dense urban area might want an apartment that size.

It might make sense for a government to regulate minimum square footage, but by setting those numbers arbitrarily high we are contributing to Boston's housing shortages.

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Voting closed 16

I never said anything about these specific numbers, and neither did the person I was replying to.

I just pointed out why minimum square footage needs to be regulated. It seems you agree with me. Direct your outrage elsewhere.

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777 square feet is not a closet apartment.

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I never said anything about these specific numbers, and neither did the person I was replying to.

I just pointed out why minimum square footage needs to be regulated.

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“different sizes and layouts of apartments will
Attract different prospective tenants.”

Thanks for being upfront about it. So this isn’t about a mythical neighborhood “character” or any safety concern, it’s about attracting a specific type of tenant.

What “type” of tenant, I wonder.

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Look, I'm not trying to justify anyone using this as an excuse to be racist or discriminatory in any other way, I'm just pointing out the logic behind it.

And types of tenants absolutely do contribute to neighborhood character - neighborhoods have different character whether they're occupied by college students, young professionals, families with small children, retired persons, etc. And these different types of tenants are looking for different sizes and layouts of apartments.

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The "logic" is based on erroneous suppositions and/or discriminatory motives.

It is not based on factual information about health and safety or even utility loadings.

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Okay, I'm horrible at this type of spacial calculation, and it's possible that the listings for my condo are just wrong and it's not really 689 square feet...But I have two bed rooms, a living room and a spacious kitchen (and a hallway and bathroom). Does not feel cramped. So maybe setting the minimum at 900 feet is a bit more generous than necessary?

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Most triple deckers are 800 square feet for 2 or 3 bedrooms.

My 1br is 550 square feet and just fine for a single person.

These people are out to maximize construction profit.

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"Most triple deckers are 800 square feet for 2 or 3 bedrooms."

Umm, where are you getting this information. That seems much smaller than the 2/3BR places I have seen in JP. 800 seems more of an average for Back Bay/Beacon Hill.

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Triple deckers in JP run large for 3-families, and average somewhere between 900 and 1000 square feet per unit. When I was house-hunting in 2009, I saw the occasional 850-footer, but they were definitely the exception rather than the rule. I lived in an 1100-sq ft one over by the park for a while, and it felt really spacious until the kids arrived, then it seemed like it was a little cozy.

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My JP triple decker, which is very typical, is just under 1300 sq. ft per floor. I think they probably count the porches in that calculation but it’s pretty decent sized. That said, it comfortably houses 3-4 people. 700 sq ft doesn’t seem outlandishly small at all—perfect for a lot of people.

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My condo, which I own outright, is just a tad or so under 1, 000 sq ft., and Im comfortable and happy living here. Since I have a regular range and an OTC microwave, I can and have had friends and family over for dinner on occasion. It's also easier to store stuff in a somewhat larger place, and to keep it clean as well. Plus, I own a pet Congo African Grey Parrot, which is also important to me, and makes it important for me to have the amount of square footage that I have in my condo, as well.

I'm almost positive that many people who live in very small, cramped places would be happier to live in places that are somewhat bigger than what they have.

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Yeah, like a dorm room.

Otherwise, some people do not want to pay for that extra space. Don't want to heat it. Don't want to maintain it or clean it.

I happily own a small car. It fits my needs. I don't not own an SUV for the same reason that I don't own a luxury car - I can afford it, but I don't want it.

Same goes for space in a home.

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That you are clueless.

You made your choice - don't impose that choice on people who can't afford a large unit and need more reasonably sized units to live in.

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Color me skeptical that this is the actual reason Pisani called the proposal "ridiculous," but if so, that's terrible policy by the BPDA that will guarantee our continuing housing crisis.

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The hearing in question (it's not very long).

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I realize that's what Pisani said but he showed his true hand when he said he was concerned about what that part of JP looks like now with other newer buildings there. That is not his role on the Board. I think he was speaking as a JP resident more than anything. Either way, completely inappropriate.

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Can we just stop with this "well my unit is XXX sq .ft. so why can't they be smaller?"

It's simply not relevant, no one really cares, and it just does not matter to this story.

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Units in buildings that have been around for a long time and units in buildings that would go up from scratch. Yes, there are units that are smaller than the current BPDA guidelines, but they're grandfathered in because they were built a long time ago (heck, there's at least one entire house on my street that's smaller than the BPDA guidelines for a two-bedroom apartment).

What's at issue here are units in buildings that would be brand new if approved. It's not really any different than the days when the government cared about emissions standards on cars - old cars could keep on belching whatever it is they belch; it was the new cars that had to meet the increasingly tough standards.

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It's clear why we didn't want to keep producing the old style of high emission cars, it's still unclear to me why small apartments are such a big problem. If half the city is okay with living in the grandfathered smaller apartments, why shouldn't we continue to build them. I'm all in favor of requiring better sprinkler systems, etc. But ensuring these apartments are large enough for arbitrary standards is one of a hundred reasons why we can't build new middle income housing.

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Remember that blog post that said there are a grand total of 6 buildings in Somerville which could be built today without a variance?

Housing prices are out of control because zoning is out of control.

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Only 22 residential buildings met the current zoning code in a city of 80,000 residents. The calculation didn't include parking requirements, so it's likely that even fewer buildings met the code.

"The Illegal City of Somerville"
http://cityobservatory.org/the-illegal-city-of-somerville/

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Voting closed 8

Has the BRA ... um ... BPDA ever published the basis for these standards? Like, studies, science, analysis and evidence?

If so, I can't find them.

This has nothing to do with health or wellbeing. These space regulations are suburban or Texas, not Boston or even most of Europe. They are not micro at all. They are arbitrary and greedy. they are designed to keep "certain" people out by being too expensive. Full Stop on a Red Line.

If I'm wrong, show me the data, statistics, evidence, analysis, etc. that lead to their determination.

When it comes to a 2br in 700 square feet being "too small", "squalid" or "micro", it must be uninhabitable by a strawman.

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but I'm having trouble following the money, in this case. JP is already crazy-pants expensive; the top floor of a triple decker three blocks over just sold for $1.2 million. It's not like those 700-square-foot condos were going to sell for $150K. I'm guessing these "micro" units were each intended to be $700K+ (new construction right on Centre Street, dontchaknow) so I'm not even sure who the BPDA would be trying to keep out with size restrictions like this.

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The city population is getting as high as it was in the fifties. Back then people lived in smaller shared spaces. These building standards won’t create enough housing for the people that live here. We have to stop restricting micro apartments to expensive neighborhoods. A 350 Sq foot apartment for 2000 a month doesn’t help.

We need to create housing that is affordable without subsidies. You don’t need to go overseas to find people living in tents in parks.

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Ok, that’s a useful addition to that story. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that as shown in this case and others prior to that, Pisani and his followers’ main concern and outrage seem to be over dwelling size or parking.

When was the last time Pisani & Co expressed concerns over the living option (or lack thereof) of the 50% of Boston folks who make less than 35k a year? (a 2016 BPDA figure)

Oh, and what about Boston’s pledge to be Carbon Neutral in 2050? How do these affluent board members living in energy hog homes with over 1000 sqft per occupant propose that we get there?

It’s time for a new ZBA board who is in sync with today and tomorrow's most pressing issues.

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Voting closed 14

It exists to arbitrate issues surrounding the city's zoning code, because it's impossible to adequately cover every single possible case in a city with thousands upon thousands of pieces of land and buildings, and your argument seems to be that the zoning code is bad (and it should feel bad).

If you're unhappy with that code, your issue is really with the mayor, who appoints the members of the BPDA, the ZBA and the Zoning Commission (the body that actually makes changes to the zoning code, rather than tries to interpret it).

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My issue is that we have such a restrictive zoning code at all. Ensure the basics like keeping dumping grounds away from schools and otherwise let people build what they want on land they own. You’ll get much more housing and lower prices

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Voting closed 9

Not without limiting too much population growth and stopping investors from buying them up. Just building isn't the best solution. Some places will be more expensive than others. That doesn't mean zoning always needs to be adjusted.

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The developer should come back with a rooming house co-op scheme.

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