Affordable developer made space for bike storage by misleading board, tearing down its own trees
The developer of an affordable-housing project in The Port neighborhood cut down a flourishing stand of trees to make room for bike storage lockers for tenants after assuring zoning regulators that the space with the trees contained no more than “overgrown ivy.” Now the bike storage plan is on hold, but no one in city government has directly addressed the developer’s misrepresentation. And there’s no evidence more bike storage is needed.
The “overgrown ivy” statement to the Board of Zoning Appeal is even more perplexing because it was the developer – Just A Start – that planted those very trees on that lot about 20 years earlier, when it was converting the Squirrel Brand factory on Boardman Street into affordable housing. Just A Start had promised neighbors of the development that the lot would become passive green space as part of a court settlement.
It was one of those neighbors and a tenant in the Squirrel Brand building who exposed the tree-cutting and the misrepresentation, winning a halt to the plan to lay a concrete slab to support four bike storage lockers with space for eight bicycles. Otherwise no one would have known of it.
The situation remains at a standstill: Except for two remaining trees, the lot is empty soil and there are no plans to plant anything on it.
Complying with city requirement
The story involves Squirrelwood, a combination of 65 units at two existing affordable-housing sites and 23 new apartments. The 88-unit project, completed last year, stretches across Broadway and includes the former Squirrel Brand factory at 8-12 Boardman St.; and Linwood Court, a cluster of three- and four-story buildings bounded by Broadway and Market and Columbia streets. Just A Start, one of the city’s two major private affordable-housing developers, owns both sites.
Carl Nagy-Koechlin, Just A Start’s executive director, said that to put the imbroglio “in perspective,” the agency has “substantially improved 60-some affordable apartments and built 20-something new, state-of-the-art, energy-efficient apartments for the next generation of people who could otherwise not afford to live in Cambridge – or in Greater Boston, for that matter. Our crime was that we cut trees down to install bike lockers and, in the process, probably mischaracterized the area where the trees were cut down. But it’s not like we did so to mine coal or house rich people. We did it to comply with a city requirement that tenants have places to store their bikes.”
Nagy-Koechlin acknowledged in a phone interview that “there was definitely more than overgrown brush and ivy” on the parcel intended for bike lockers when former Just A Start director of real estate acquisitions Craig Nicholson said at a Board of Zoning Appeal hearing in 2018 that it contained “just overgrown ivy, not even really landscaped.” He was answering a question from former board chairman Constantine Alexander about whether the parcel was being used for parking.
Would have “handled it differently”
Nicholson, whose LinkedIn profile shows he left Just A Start in December, did not immediately respond to an email sent to him Monday at his current job.
“I’m not prepared to say [Nicholson] wasn’t telling the truth,” Nagy-Koechlin said, although he added that “there were mature trees and mature growth” on the parcel. He didn’t know details of the project history because he wasn’t at the organization for most of it, he said; Nagy-Koechlin arrived at Just A Start in 2019.
“If I knew then what I know now we would have handled it differently and communicated more with the abutters about our plans,” he said. He also said it’s not clear that the bike storage lockers are needed except for city rules adopted in 2013 that require at least one covered storage space per unit in multifamily or townhouse housing. Most of the new bike storage lockers in Linwood Court are not being used.
As for the promise that the parcel would be passive green space, Nagy-Koechlin said it “wasn’t in our institutional memory.” That pledge, though, was part of an agreement with neighbors who had sued in Middlesex Superior Court in 2000 to overturn the permit allowing Just A Start to convert the Squirrel Brand factory to 19 affordable apartments.
Shocked at actions
The plaintiffs dropped the suit when Just A Start agreed not to replace a garage with one apartment and a parking space on that parcel, which borders the back of several two- and three-family homes on Harvard Street. Instead, “it’s going to be passive, landscaped green space,” former Just A Start housing director Barbara Shaw told the Board of Zoning Appeal in 2000. To meet the neighbors’ concern about density, Just A Start also eliminated a roof deck that would have overlooked the Harvard Street homes.
Hatch Sterrett, who lives in Squirrel Brand and helped organize a cooperative community garden next to the building; and Ilona O’Connor, whose Harvard Street condominium overlooks the parcel, were shocked when Just A Start cut down the trees Sept. 7. O’Connor said she had been at one of the meetings more than a decade ago with Just A Start – in her apartment – when the agreement to keep the parcel green was reached, she said. (She was not part of the lawsuit.)
They were also shocked to see the transcript of the 2018 hearing at the Board of Zoning Appeal with Nicholson’s statement about “overgrown ivy.” If they had known what Just A Start planned, they would have attended the hearing and rebutted Nicholson, they said. O’Connor and Sterrett have mounted an uphill campaign to prevent the bike lockers and their concrete pad.
In a letter to Just A Start officials and councillor Quinton Zondervan, whom O’Connor and Sterrett enlisted in their cause, O’Connor said the site had been “landscaped with white birches, weeping cherry and arborvitae. Over the last 20 years these trees matured and provided shade and beauty for our backyards.
“This agreement was violated when the trees were destroyed [with no] warning or opportunity to discuss the plan,” she wrote. O’Connor said Just A Start had told Sterrett and her that they could not change their plans because of “financial and construction deadlines. In the rush to complete the project we will be left with this poorly designed plan for years to come.”
In an anguished statement, Sterrett said: “They never should have cut down a beautiful tree canopy in a lower-income neighborhood when the city has a policy priority of preserving its tree canopy. On so many points, JAS (and the ZBA inadvertently) did wrong” by the community, residents and the environment, “and honesty and participation and democratic accountability – all these values … trashed.”
O’Connor also wrote to Alexander at the Board of Zoning Appeal informing him of the erroneous statement and the agreement from 2000, saying that Just A Start was willing only to install three instead of four bike storage lockers and “discuss plantings with neighbors.” She said Just A Start deemed it was too late to return to the board and asked if “there is any remedy” for Just A Start’s misrepresentation.
A staff member instead forwarded the letter to building commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam.
No written order at ISD
Sterrett met with the commissioner on his own in November and presented him with photos and other evidence. Sterrett said Singanayagam told him that he would order Just A Start to stop immediately, went into his office and came back to say he had called the organization with the order.
That set off a flurry of emails between Sterrett and Just A Start in which Sterrett asserted that the commissioner had ordered a stop and Just A Start insisted it had not received any such order. In the last communication with Sterrett or O’Connor, on Dec. 22, Just A Start said it would go ahead with installing one fewer bike storage locker on the parcel.
Singanayagam said in a brief interview last week that he had told Just A Start “to stop” its bike locker plan but didn’t say when or provide details. There is no written order in the Inspectional Services Department file on the project.
Then, last week, Nagy-Koechlin said Just A Start would not do anything on the parcel unless ordered to. For the first time he also expressed doubt about the need for more bike storage – a big change from the agency’s previous stance.
Need for bike storage
Are the bike lockers needed? Just A Start didn’t assess that and wasn’t required to. Sterrett said only two or three tenants at Squirrel Brand own bikes; a few, some kid-sized, are locked to a rack on another side of the building. During the controversy last fall, project director Elizabeth Marsh said Just A Start originally didn’t plan to put any lockers on the space that’s in controversy but decided that there was not enough room at Linwood Court, so it would add lockers at Squirrel Brand for the benefit of Linwood Court residents. Linwood Court is where most of the lockers aren’t being used.
Zoning amendments adopted in 2013 require one long-term bike storage space per unit for the first 20 units of a multifamily or townhouse development, and 1.05 spaces per unit above 20 units. Squirrelwood needed 88 spaces (because none of the buildings have more than 20 units) and planned to provide 76.
Zondervan, whose legislative record is in support of bicycle transportation but also trees and affordable housing, said maybe the bike storage rules need to be revisited. “A lot has changed since the zoning was last revised almost 10 years ago, including the rollout of Bluebikes and a major expansion of the protected bike lane network. It’s time to have an informed conversation about revising the requirements,” Zondervan said in an email Wednesday. “Regarding the situation at Squirrel Brand, it could be that a new Bluebikes station would serve the needs of the community better than a bunch of unused storage racks.”
This post was updated May 18, 2022, to add a comment by councillor Quinton Zondervan.