Boston is experiencing faster than expected population growth and a housing shortage. As part of the response strategy, Mayor Walsh recently updated and increased the City’s goal for new housing units by 30% from 53,000 to 69,000 by 2030. Since announcing its original housing production goals in 2014, Boston has permitted over 27,000 new units and construction has been completed on just under 18,000. Boston’s updated housing plan also calls for additional housing in outlying areas of the City, greater diversity in housing type and affordability, and efforts to preserve and increase income-restricted housing stock.
Inevitably, in urban areas, new proposed projects impact neighbors and neighborhoods, including existing condominium developments.
There is consensus in Boston and the metro area that housing supply is simply not keeping pace with demand and that there must be a concerted effort to ramp up the construction of new housing. Inevitably, in urban areas, new proposed projects impact neighbors and neighborhoods, including existing condominium developments. A proposed new project may create new shadows, wind tunnels, unsafe and congested traffic patterns or be out of character with the neighborhood. That is to stay nothing about how living next to or near a construction site can impact day-to-day living. Condominium boards, and the managers who represent them, have a strong interest in participating and advocating for their interests when nearby new proposals are under development review.
Development Review Participation
There are certain proposals that are so demonstrably out of scale, have a flawed design or are otherwise not appropriate for the site that it makes sense to outright oppose the project. More often, however, the proposal is likely to ultimately receive planning approval and the development review process presents an opportunity to advocate for project changes that will minimize project impacts during and after construction, provide direct community and building benefits, preserve neighborhood character and increase your unit values.
Development review is overseen by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and is an iterative process through which the developer, BPDA staff, public agencies and community exchange project information, revisions and comments. Advocacy may be able to impact the final project proposal, project vote and/or the conditions of its approval.
Here we will address Large Project Review under Article 80 of the Boston Zoning Code. Large Project Review applies to new construction of 50,000+ sq. feet as well as the substantial rehabilitation of a building that is 100,000 sq. feet.
Large Project Review
The review before the review. The first step occurs when a developer files a Notice of Intent (NOI) with the BPDA. The NOI signals the developer’s intent to start the Article 80 process and provides an executive summary of the proposed project. BPDA staff will hold pre-application meetings with the developer to review the project concept and provide feedback. Upon receipt of the NOI, BPDA staff solicits nominations for members of a community-led Impact Advisory Group (IAG), which advises the BPDA and makes recommendations on how to mitigate any negative neighborhood impacts a project may have. While the NOI is a public document, there is no public participation, other than the formation of the IAG at this stage.
Formal Development Review:
The formal Article 80 development review process kicks off when the developer files a Project Notification Form (PNF). The PNF is essentially the project application; it contains a detailed description of the project, information on urban and sustainable design elements, infrastructure and expected construction impacts. The PNF also contains analyses of anticipated project impacts on transportation and environmental conditions such as wind, shadows, daylight, air quality, water quality, soil and noise.
After the filing of the PNF, there is a public comment period and the BPDA will hold a public meeting on the proposal. This is the first opportunity for the public to weigh in on the proposal, outline concerns about the project and request additional information. This could mean, for example, advocating for:
▪ Changes to building scale and design elements that will better relate to the existing structures and neighborhood character;
▪ Relocation of loading docks, building mechanicals, drop-off areas or other features that will unreasonably interfere with neighborhood quiet enjoyment;
▪ More, less or different forms of parking;
▪ Public benefits to enhance and maintain community parks;
▪ Improvements to open space and the public realm including the sidewalks, landscaping, street lights and safety features; and
▪ Additional or different signals at intersections.
It could also mean asking for further study of certain transportation or environmental condition impacts such as:
▪ Complete shadow analyses;
▪ Wind studies at additional locations;
▪ Transportation impact studies at additional intersections or driveways; and/or
▪ Solar glare or thermal build-up studies
Abutters may also wish to demand specific construction management provisions to ensure there are appropriate pre-condition surveys and monitoring, rodent control measures and safety features in place.
After the first public review and comment period, the BPDA will determine if further, technical analysis is required on the project impacts. The BPDA will holding a meeting (scoping session) with the developer and, if there are areas that require further study, the BPDA will issue a scoping letter outlining those areas of concern for the developer’s response as well as the developer’s response to public comments/concerns.
Typically, the developer will respond to the scoping document by filing a Draft Project Impact Report (DPIR), essentially a second or revised application that considers and responds to the areas of further study mandated by the BPDA and the concerns raised through the public comments. The filing of the DPIR triggers a second public meeting and comment period. Neighbors and the community will have the opportunity to comment on the DPIR (in writing and in a public meeting) and raise concerns about the project to the BPDA and developer. At this stage, if not done already and depending on the proposal scope, it may be appropriate to engage professionals who can review the developer’s technical impact analysis, including geo-technical engineers, construction consultants and/or environmental consultants. The DPIR provides a greater level of detail and study so additional, more detailed analysis and comment may be possible at this stage than could be offered in response to the PNF.
Behind this public process, the developers and BPDA staff, IAG and other city agencies are meeting to review, comment upon and improve the project. There is also an extensive design review process. There are a lot of players. Large Project Review takes time.
If the BPDA believes, after the second comment period, that there are additional areas that require study and refinement, the BPDA can make a preliminary adequacy determination and require additional analysis and project change. The developer would then be required to address those issues and submit a Final Project Impact Report (FPIR), which is essentially the developer’s final project application. If, after the second comment period the BPDA is satisfied that the project addresses the comments of the community and fully addresses the areas of impact, it can make an adequacy determination waiving the filing a further impact report.
The adequacy determination forms the basis of the BPDA staff’s recommendation to the BPDA Board.
The BPDA Board must vote to approve a project for it to proceed. The BPDA Board is a five-member Board appointed by the Mayor (4 members) and Governor (1 member). Depending on the project, there may be a right to a public hearing, with opportunity for public comments limited to two minutes, or the vote will be conducted at a public meeting, without additional public comment (although in all cases previously submitted public comments are part of the project file given to each voting Board member).
There are additional permitting and review processes (Board approvals) that are required to start construction. Projects seeking variances for height, density, setbacks or parking, for example, will also require approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Projects that are larger than one acre using Planned Development Areas (PDAs) will require approval from the Zoning Commission. These are different processes with different opportunities to impact the project and with certain rights of appeal. The developer will also need building permits from Inspectional Services and may need to comply with certain ongoing design review processes or requirements.