By Michael Coughlin Jr.
On Wednesday, July 12, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) held the second of two neighborhood needs-themed public meetings, this time to make recommendations for the remaining topics that are part of PLAN: Charlestown’s Neighborhood Needs Analysis. During this meeting, the BPDA revealed recommendations for seven neighborhood topics: Housing, Open Space, Climate Resilience, Retail, Food Security, Arts and Culture, and Mobility. For each of the seven aforementioned topics, BPDA staff detailed the city agencies that work on the topic, relevant plans that have guided the BPDA’s recommendations, and in some cases, ongoing work. The first topic on the docket was housing, in which the BPDA made four recommendations for the neighborhood. The first of which is to focus housing unit growth in the historically industrial areas which have low density. As for the second recommendation Patricia Cafferky, a Senior Planner with the BPDA, said it is to “Update the zoning code to allow housing wherever feasible, to densities that will encourage the creation of affordable housing, especially new housing which would be required to follow the city’s Inclusionary Development — IDP policy — and result in more affordable housing units.” Other suggestions included prioritizing the creation of family-sized units with three or more bedrooms and advocating for affordable homeownership opportunities for households below median-income levels. It should be noted that according to Cafferky, these recommendations were guided in part by the Housing a Changing City plan which was updated in 2018. Moreover, in terms of ongoing work, there are plans to update the Inclusionary Development Program (IDP) this year. The next topic up was Open Space, with recommendations guided in part by the Open Space Plan 2023-2029 and the Urban Forest Plan. The BPDA has eight suggestions for this topic, including adding street trees to the neighborhood and installing two multi-use soccer/lacrosse fields by the year 2050, among many other recommendations. “Charlestown, in general, has a pretty low acre of park to residents ratio at only 2.5 currently,” said Cafferky. “A big priority of this plan is adding acreage of open space — not necessarily parks — but open space, even if it’s on private land, to the neighborhood that residents will have access to,” she added. Regarding climate resiliency, the BPDA supplemented its recommendations with several guidelines, including the Coastal Flood Resilience Design and Climate Resilient Infrastructure Guidelines. Other helpful plans were also mentioned, such as the Heat Resilience Solutions for Boston, Urban Forest Plan, and two Coastal Resilience plans from Climate Ready Boston. With these relevant plans and guidelines in mind, the BPDA recommends continuing to implement the heat and coastal resilience projects that Climate Ready Boston is undertaking and adding more green infrastructure features. Continuing to work with partners in the state, federal and private sectors to implement things like climate mitigation measures that serve the public good was also suggested. Topic number four went into depth about retail in Charlestown. Cafferky explained that there are two challenges concerning retail in the neighborhood that residents raised: the loss of retail space due to conversion to residential and vacant storefronts. Through its recommendations, the BPDA is setting out to quell the former challenge; as Cafferky mentioned, the latter challenge is harder to target directly. Currently, ground-floor residential uses are allowed by right in the Local Convenience and Neighborhood Shopping subdistricts — where most retail in the neighborhood is located. This means if someone has a building with ground floor retail and wants to convert that space to a housing unit, they can, and the BPDA cannot recommend denial. “So what we’re recommending as part of PLAN: Charlestown is to make residential on the ground floor in these two districts conditional. Which means that we actually do get to have a say in if this goes forward,” said Cafferky. With this zoning change, the BPDA is also proposing to amend the boundaries of the subdistricts to remove fully residential blocks. Other recommendations include making needed retail uses such as gyms or laundromats less restricted in the aforementioned subdistricts, encouraging developers to have retail facilities, facilitating a walkable retail environment, and encouraging developers to include off-site retail. Moving toward food security, the BPDA looked at the number of food establishments in the neighborhood and analyzed data regarding food stamps/SNAP benefits and more. The BPDA then landed on three recommendations: adding an affordable grocery store in the area, advocating for developments to have community garden plots on the ground floor or rooftop, and supporting local food pantries and Harvest on Vine. As for the penultimate topic — Arts and Culture — the Boston Creates Plan supplemented the BPDA’s recommendations, and there is also an expected Making Space for Art: Securing Cultural Infrastructure Study later this year. The recommendations, of which there were multiple, included maintaining the existing cultural assets and artist presence in the neighborhood, implementing the incoming recommendations from the Making Space for Art study, identifying gaps in affordable workspaces for creative uses, and much more. The final topic of the meeting was mobility, in which Lydia Hausle, a Senior Transportation Planner with the BPDA, went over data that touched on several transportation aspects. The data touched on subjects such as crash history, travel trends, parking, and the conditions for driving, pedestrian, transit, and biking throughout Charlestown. In addition, Hausle also analyzed mobility in context, giving meeting attendees an idea of how it is different in each part of the neighborhood. Some of the recommendations for mobility include studying and developing plans for key neighborhood corridors such as Main and Medford Streets, establishing a neighborhood bike network, expanding public carshare, strengthening multimodal connections, and much more. Following the presentation of all seven topics, Cafferky reviewed one more change the BPDA would like to make related to zoning. The change is to a small zoning district within the neighborhood — City Square — which was added in 1995 due to the Big Dig. The City Square zoning is 100% the same as Charlestown’s dimensional zoning and 80% the same in terms of allowed land uses. “We’re proposing as part of PLAN: Charlestown that we take City Square and we put it in with the rest of the Charlestown District to make sure these districts are treated the same in the entirety of Charlestown,” said Cafferky. It should be noted that all of the aforementioned details of each topic merely scratched the surface of last Wednesday’s presentation. If you want to learn more about it, the meeting’s slideshow and recording can be found at https://www.bostonplans.org/planning/planning-initiatives/plan-charlestown. As for the next steps, the draft PLAN: Charlestown document is slated to be released at the end of the month, with a comment period to follow. Further, a public meeting about the draft is tentatively scheduled for August 3 at 6:00 p.m., and the final plan is tentatively slated to come out in September. For any and all information regarding last Wednesday’s meeting or PLAN: Charlestown in general, you can visit the link mentioned above.