October 17, 2023
The Land Use and Development Advisory Committee of A Better City held a hybrid meeting on October 5. The committee focused on recent initiatives for planning in Boston and waterfront resiliency efforts and the relationship to Chapter 91 and other regulatory controls.
Kathleen Onufer, Deputy Director of Zoning, and Lydia Hausle, Senior Transportation Planner, both of Boston Planning and Development Agency, briefed the committee on planning initiatives. Lydia described the Streets and Squares initiative that will focus on developing individual plans for small, transit accessible areas across Boston’s neighborhoods. The public will work with several city departments on a range of topics during a six to nine month planning process to devise implementable actions that can be completed in five to ten years to support affordability, equity, and resilience.
Kathleen described the approach to zoning reform that will create new mixed use zoning districts updating the Boston Zoning Code and small area plans to update the Boston Zoning map. Analysis will be based on review of the last five years of Article 80 projects, building and energy code thresholds, test fitting, and existing non-conformities, change of use applications, and performance standards. The timeline for this zoning analysis includes a mid-October release of analysis and stakeholder vetting including an October 16 Public Meeting, with additional focus groups. In early November, draft zoning text amendments will be released followed by mid-November public meetings, with the adoption process targeted for December and January. The base code will include an updated use table. Building lot coverage and height will be the limiting dimension rather than Floor Area Ratio.
The committee members asked about the ambitious timeline and the approach that does not employ Floor Area Ratios. The Squares and Streets framework will touch every neighborhood. Staff are being trained to implement this planning approach.
Nick Iselin, General Manager – Development, LendLease, described his experience gaining approval to build the Clippership Wharf development in East Boston. He described practical constraints related to the site, regulatory context, and economics. Opportunities to create a resilient sustainable project required that the ground floor be raised to address anticipated sea level rise, but achieving regulatory consensus among agencies in a timely manner was a challenge, resulting in work proceeding at risk. The development team implemented changes not captured in the original Chapter 91 license. Nick said that regulatory hurdles around resilient, nature-based solutions abound. “Complexity is the enemy.”
Marc Margulies, President of the Wharf District Council, is leading the effort of the Council to develop a District Protection and Resiliency Plan. He reviewed the environmental vulnerabilities that threaten the properties along the portion of the Downtown Boston Waterfront between the Fort Point Channel and Christopher Columbus Park. The threats include sea level rise, storm surge, and stormwater flooding. Working with the property owners and the consultant team led by Arup, and guided by plans and guidelines for the area, the group has identified potential solutions as well as applicable regulations that will affect development of designs and future actions. Potential solutions include extending the shoreline into the harbor. With respect to regulatory constraints, key findings of the team are that there is no categorical restriction applicable to the Resilience Plan projects in the Chapter 91 regulations; however, the biggest hurdles to implementing district-scale flood protection measures are likely to be related to agency positions and policies rather than actual regulatory constraints.
Committee members offered several observations suggesting that there needs to be greater clarity of who is in charge of the process breaking down the silos of the regulatory environment. Perhaps a permitting ombudsman can help to expedite the license review and approval process. Some changes will be required as more district wide strategies for waterfront resilience are advanced.