Maura In The News

Coalition sues to block apartment complex
By Andrea Estes, Boston Globe Staff, 1/21/2004

A coalition of Boston city councilors and neighborhood activists filed suit yesterday against the city's zoning commission, alleging the panel violated regulations when it voted last month to let a developer build an apartment complex in the former Combat Zone that will tower over the rest of the neighborhood.

The suit was filed in state Land Court by City Councilors Felix D. Arroyo, Maura Hennigan, and Chuck Turner, the Chinese Progressive Association, and three private citizens. It alleges the zoning commission allowed the developer of Kensington Place, a 346-unit rental building, to define its size so it would be exempt from the city's height restrictions.

If the decision is allowed to stand, the group alleges, developers will have carte blanche to skirt key zoning requirements on height, density, and other factors.

"The ramifications go beyond Kensington," said Hennigan. "It means that any developer can come forward and get exempt from existing zoning for that area -- they won't need variances for height and density."

City zoning rules limit most small projects to 155 feet in height. But projects of an acre or more can be taller.

To push the project's size beyond an acre, the developer, Kensington Investment Company, included the public street and sidewalks, as well as part of the building of the adjacent Boston Young Men's Christian Union.

On Dec. 17, the zoning commission approved a 290-foot-high complex. The City Council has also approved the project, although the three councilors filing suit opposed it.

The project, which would be built on the site of the Glass Slipper strip club and the former Gaiety Theatre, has been opposed by some neighborhood residents, who accuse the city of putting the interest of private developers ahead of that of neighbors. They have urged the city to rezone the former Combat Zone to eliminate the strip clubs.

"I am pleased that these city councilors would choose to join our organization and the residents of Chinatown in opposing the Zoning Commission's improper actions in the Land Court," said Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.

"Development deals like Kensington make a farce of the public process and the end result of that kind of project by project negotiation is the demise of any faith in the legitimacy of neighborhood planning in Boston."

Arroyo said the Kensington project is "inappropriate for the neighborhood and is opposed by most community residents and is based on an unsupportable request for a significant zoning exception."

City officials said the zoning commission violated no rules when it allowed the Kensington project to override zoning restrictions. It did so by declaring the project a "planned development area," a zoning mechanism that allows size, density, use, and other zoning elements to be determined through negotiation involving the city, developer, and community.

Meredith Baumann, a spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, defended the Commission's action. "The Kensington Project was approved after an extensive and comprehensive community process, which included approvals by the City Council," she said.

The project will create 346 rental units in downtown Boston, of which 61 will be designated affordable, she said. Half of the affordable units would be available to people earning 50 percent of median income.

The suit asks a judge to declare the zoning commission's vote illegal -- a first step toward blocking the project, which has not yet received a permit to begin construction.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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