Planning Process, Project Reviews Collide as PLAN Charlestown Re-Starts

The re-start of the PLAN: Charlestown process on Aug. 27 brought to the forefront the awkwardness of two competing processes going on at the same time – one a slow and methodical thought exercise on planning and zoning, and the other being multiple and faster development reviews for major projects in the Town.

Reconciling them seemed to be on everyone’s mind during the Aug. 27 virtual Open House by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) – a re-start of what was once the talk this year of the Town before COVID-19 hit. BPDA kicked off the multi-year planning initiative on Jan. 31 with a blockbuster open house attended by hundreds at the Warren Prescott School gym. Things have been on hold since that time because of the pandemic, but now the BPDA is getting started again – albeit online with planning workshops once a month.

In the meantime though, there are several high-profile projects that have been proposed at the Bunker Hill Mall and elsewhere – and including the re-start of the Bunker Hill Housing Development reconstruction.

That was all summed up nicely at the Aug. 27 meeting by resident Joanne Massaro. She said it felt like a long, thoughtful planning process was going to be completed long after development decisions have been made without using all of the thought and effort put into re-planning the Town.

It is the pinch-point of the situation as planning was put on hold and construction continued at a frenzied pace.

“I understand you can’t put a moratorium on, but we’re going into this in a way that very awkward,” she said. “We’re doing this very thoughtfully and deliberately, but we’re going to have projects coming in so fast too…I am concerned we won’t be prepared for Article 80 process or the Bunker Hill Mall and probably Bunker Hill housing too…I understand how it really work, but for the me I think we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. I am really concerned once we’re done with the planning process, all the projects will be done. Everything will be decided once the plan is done.”

Planner Ted Schwartzberg, who is helping to run the PLAN Charlestown process, said it is awkward, but he said they believe the process and the project reviews can run together. Also, they cannot stop a private property owner from proposing a project on his or her land, but they can have them participate in the planning process.

“It is awkward, but I don’t believe it’s an impossible task,” he said.

“It will all be happening concurrently,” he continued. “Additionally, a lot of projects have been waiting to get underway to be part of our process. A lot of times projects will rush to get started before a planning process, but this will be an informed planning process. The property owners there (Bunker Hill Mall) have been talking about adding to their site for years now and we deliberately said it needs to be informed by this planning process. That’s why you’re hearing about it now so it can happen concurrently and not in advance of the process.”

The virtual meeting was more of a catch up and Q&A than any major presentation, but Process Director Jason Ruggiero said they will begin to have monthly planning workshops to get the process moving again, even if only online.

The first planning workshop will be dealing with the history of Charlestown with development, and a deep dive into the Neighborhood Development Overlay District (NDOD) – an existing tool now in place in much of Charlestown proper – as well as other tools.

Preservation Planner Meaghan Richard will be leading that discussion, and she and Schwartzberg said it will also include the beginnings of a discussion to find out what is historic in the neighborhood.

Richard said many areas of the City have protected historic districts, and then around them is a buffer zone called a Protection Area.

“Many historic districts in the City have Protection Areas associated with them,” said Richard. “You have the historic area and then the protection area around them that they look at with a broader scope. You look at the South End and it has its historic area, but the new Ink Block is in the Protection Area. These boundaries and what happens around them are very important.”

That will be a major point of discussion in the next planning workshop as the BPDA looks to listen carefully to the community about what is historic and what isn’t – which will detail how new development will occur going forward in the Town on the edges and in its heart.

Ruggiero said the first planning meeting, which will be on history and preservation, will take place in late September. No date has yet been set though.

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