After a fast and furious opposition emerged from Mill Hill neighbors to the 60-unit affordable housing apartment building proposed at the French Club over the past month, The Neighborhood Developers said it will take comments to heart, but defended the need for affordable housing in that neighborhood.
“We’ll spend the next month revising our plans and hopefully correct the problem areas and address them and continue our effort to create affordable housing for people who are living her and want to continue living her, and simply continuing Chelsea’s great revival,” said TND Director Ann Houston this week. “Clearly we’re a little surprised at the response because we know how much Chelsea needs affordable housing. We’ve been hearing from so many residents in Chelsea and city officials about the need for housing affordable to Chelsea residents who have been here. There is a growing concern about gentrification.”
She cited that the last affordable housing project they did in Chelsea garnered 1,200 applications – many more than the number of units available.
TND has been active in Chelsea for many years and successfully developed The Box District and other smaller projects in the central part of the city. However, when acquiring the French Club and its parking lot and beginning to develop near a much more traditional residential neighborhood – that being Mill Hill – the affordable housing developers ran into a wall of sudden opposition.
TND purchased the former Club for $975,000 in September 2014, and purchased the parking lot next door this past March. An extension of Spencer Avenue running between the Club and the parking lot was discontinued by the City Council in early May – and many neighbors have said they were not apprised of that change.
Hundreds of neighbors have signed petitions against the project, and many believe there is already too much affordable housing in Chelsea. Others have said they would like to see home ownership opportunities at the site.
Councillor Matt Frank, who initially supported the project, said last week that he has withdrawn that support because his constituents are so adamantly opposed to the project and because he doesn’t believe there was enough communication.
TND folks, however, said that the average income in Mill Hill is $57,000 and that’s well-within the limits for affordable housing. They also said that most of the development in that area of the City has been market rate housing, and other such market-rate developments threaten to drive up rents all over Chelsea.
“There has been right around the elementary school a fair amount of housing developed, but not for families or children,” said Houston. “We were and continue to be very excited to develop housing at this site that is really affordable to families in Chelsea and is able to get children right across the street to the Burke elementary complex. We do have to continue to make sure we have housing for people who have been in Chelsea and have been Chelsea residents and who we fear will be pushed out. We see a proposal for a 692-unit apartment complex that’s all market rate on Everett Avenue. That can help drive up rents across the community.”
Aside from that, though, Houston said they have heard Mill Hill loud and clear.
“We have heard concerns neighbors have raised and we’re taking them very, very seriously,” she said. “We wish we would have had the opportunity to talk outside a public meeting. We appreciate that didn’t happen and will find other opportunities to sit down with the neighbors.”
TND’s Emily Loomis said they believe there was good communication on the project, something TND has been criticized about.
She said they knocked on doors, had conversations and answered questions. If no one answered the door, they left fliers with information about the proposal.
Another point of contention has been the discontinued street on Spencer Avenue, which many Mill Hill residents use to get to the City Hall area without having to go all the way down Broadway.
“I’m not sure if people realize there’s still a cut through on Toomey Street,” Houston said. “Taking the street was in line with the other sorts of actions the City has done to help development, particularly private development. I am sure if you’re used to the cut-through, it feels significant, but taking Toomey Street curve will quickly become the normal driving pattern and won’t represent a problem.”
Finally, TND said it didn’t believe there were any conflicts of interest that played a part in the development of the French Club.
Planning Board Chair Tuck Willis is on the Board of Directors for TND and, thus, was listed on the deed for the entity that purchased the French Club. That said, Willis recused himself from the proceedings, and other members of the Planning Board with ties to TND are simply volunteers.
“I think the state Conflict of Interest law is very, very clear and mean to protect against these things,” she said. “I think you saw that when the one member with ties to TND recused himself in a good and forthright manner. One other member of the Planning Board volunteers with TND (Henry Wilson) and was frankly one of our toughest questioners. I noted members nodding in support of neighbors. I am sure when they’re ready to make a decision, they’ll make an unbiased suggestion…We don’t think we have a tight ‘in’ with either of the boards. We think people have been operating in a very forthright manner.”
The matter will be addressed at the Zoning Board of Appeals on July 14, and then again at the Planning Board on July 28.
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