Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A tree newly planted by Just A Start at the Squirrelwood apartments in The Port. (Photo: Sue Reinert)

Newly planted saplings are growing in a small lot in The Port neighborhood where an affordable-housing developer cut down mature trees a year ago to make room for bike storage, after telling city zoning regulators there were no trees there. The same developer, Just A Start, planted the new trees this week and intends to add more greenery, executive director Carl Nagy-Koechlin said Tuesday.

“Because of our discussion with residents and abutters and councillor (Quinton) Zondervan and the city, we concluded that we did not need to and would not put bike storage there,” Nagy-Koechlin said. He said Just A Start will add “river birch, ground cover, shrubs and flowering plants over the next couple of weeks to recreate this naturally landscaped area there.”

The lot is on Boardman Street next to the former Squirrel Brand factory, which Just A Start converted into low-rent housing about 20 years ago. It created an affordable-housing development, Squirrelwood, in 2019 by rehabilitating the 20 units at Squirrel Brand and 45 units at another of its sites, Linwood Court, across Broadway. Just A Start added 23 apartments at Linwood, giving the combined Squirrelwood project 88 affordable homes.

Under city zoning rules, Squirrelwood needed storage for 88 bikes; it planned 76 spaces, including covered pods. There wasn’t enough room at Linwood, so Just A Start decided to use the small space on Boardman Street for four pods.

A newly planted tree is seen in front of one of two mature trees kept at the Squirrelwood site. (Photo: Ilona OConnor)

As city officials considered approving Squirrelwood In 2018, a Just A Start manager who has since left told the Board of Zoning Appeal that there was nothing on the parcel except “overgrown ivy.” At the time, the site was filled with mature trees – trees that had been planted by Just A Start as part of a court settlement over the development of affordable units at Squirrel Brand factory 20 years before. Neighbors who had opposed the density of the development negotiated the settlement.

The agreement, apparently forgotten by Just A Start, called for the organization to maintain the lot as passive green space. It did – until cutting down all but two trees on Sept. 7, 2021, to accommodate four pods holding eight bikes.

A neighbor, Ilona O’Connor, who knew of the settlement, and a Squirrel Brand resident, Hatch Sterrett, brought the tree-cutting to the attention of the city and public and forced a standstill to the bike storage plans. Now Just A Start intends once again to create a passive green space.  “Community input tends to make projects better,” Nagy-Koechlin said Tuesday. “We ended up with something better than we would otherwise.”

“I think it’s a good ending,” he said. “If we had it to do over again we probably would have done it differently.”