Bunker Hill Development Clears Final BCDC Hurdle on Phase 1

The Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC) approved the Bunker Hill Housing Redevelopment (BHHR) Phase 1 – consisting of two buildings and public realm improvements – by a vote of 9-0 on Tuesday evening, in the face of growing support from those testifying and despite continued calls by tree advocates to delay the project.

The approval was the final barrier to moving ahead with construction on Phase 1, which consists of the 250-unit mixed-income building F and the six-story all-affordable building M.

“This is an historic public-private partnership for Boston in every way,” said Adelaide Grady, executive director of the Bunker redevelopment project. “The creation of new replacement public housing and new market rate units will achieve exemplary standards for environmental justice and sustainability along with vast improvements to the site with new parks, tree-lined streets and retail. Thank you to the strong voices of the CRA, Turn-it-Around, Charlestown community and elected officials for their input over the last several years, all which is now reflected in one collaborative vision. We look forward to bringing new homes to the families who have waited far too long.”

While design and architecture are usually the hotbed of discussion at the BCDC, the BHHR brought to the review board the issue of tree removal and perhaps made that aspect of design more important now citywide.

However, the unfortunate underbelly of the debate in the neighborhood was that it ended up pitting public housing residents and long-time neighbors desperate for new housing – some of whom had already been relocated out of the neighborhood – against tree advocates – a majority of whom didn’t live in or abutting the project and sought to delay the start. That resulted in a number of contentious meetings featuring harsh words, carefully crafted slights and outright insults at times.

Tuesday’s BCDC meeting was much more tame in respect to the debate, but while it did approve the housing development, it also didn’t push the tree issue to the side.

Member Deneen Crosby said that over the six years of planning and review on the project, the information that has come in the last year of debate and discussion has re-shaped how planning should go in the future.

“I think there is a lot of information that came into the project after much work was done that has made this a better project,” she said. “I feel with all the information we have now, a fresh look on the rest of the project would be a good idea. We have all the information on things and an open space plan…If there’s something worth preserving and it can be incorporated in the plan, I want to hear more of that…I’d be supportive of suggesting that all work like this be looked at more before the project comes back for another phase…I just think we might end up in a slightly different position if we take what we know now and look at it again.”

For Chair Andrea Leers, two public comments stood out to her from Tuesday.

Resident Dan Jaffe said the design of the buildings didn’t get the review it needed due to the heavy talk of trees.

“I’m really concerned that while trees are important, it has caused us to lose focus on the structures, which are permanent,” he said. “Trees can be improved on and buildings cannot. These designs are not interesting and they need character.”

Meanwhile, Leers also highlighted the comments of Tess O’Brien, and indicated that her idea of trees as a design restriction might be a pattern going forward citywide.

“I would like to have explored this ahead of time so we’re not put in a bind in future phases,” she said. “I think mature trees should be viewed as a design constraint and not an after-thought.”

Leers said those comments shaped her opinion on the matter, and stressed that future phases would be shaped with those sentiments in mind – and perhaps in projects beyond Bunker Hill.

“We will be coming back block by block for each remaining portion of the development,” she said.

Member Linda Easterley said the tree canopy discussion was important, but the need for housing outweighed stopping the project to design around trees. She said the discussion had at the BCDC has resulted in a better indoor and outdoor environment.

Councilor Lydia Edwards and State Rep. Dan Ryan submitted a letter of support for the approval on Tuesday, while also calling for the developer to adopt more thought and action on trees in the development and overall neighborhood.

“I will never assume any ill will from anyone because they are passionate about an issue,” she said. “I do also believe it’s time to land this plane and advocate for an increase and preservation of the tree canopy while also moving forward on Phase 1 of the project.”

Tree Advocate Johanna Hynes said the vote should be delayed, and indicated a crime was being committed against the residents of Bunker Hill – and she also indicated she had done interviews in the development and no one knew about what was going on.

David Meshoulam, of Speak for the Trees, advocated to adopt a four-point plan for the trees in the development – including a detailed Master Plan and having an arborist on duty at all times during construction.

Several residents of the development – officers of the Charlestown Residents Alliance (CRA) – testified that they wanted to save trees where possible, but housing was critical due to the poor conditions they live in and the more than 100 families that have already been relocated in preparation for Phase 1.

“I have lived here for 26 years and I am tired, tired of living the way we live in buildings that have deteriorated beyond repair,” she said. “This is a once in a generation opportunity to build this neighborhood in the right way regardless of income, class or race.”

In the end, the BCDC vote did include a proviso that the developer continue to look carefully at saving every existing tree possible in Phase 1, and that future phases that come back to the BCDC would continue this same conversation.

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