Downtown View:Old,White and Rich?

May 14, 2015
By

The reporting is breathless: Millennium Tower penthouse goes on sale for $37.5 million. A condo in a 19th-century Commonwealth Avenue townhouse sells for $7 million. Luxury apartments, rentable or buyable, going up in the Fenway and in the Seaport.

These new projects add expensive housing to the already-pricey neighborhoods in downtown Boston.

The buyers differ only a little. They are empty nesters realizing that city life is more interesting than that in the suburbs or dot-com youths spending their high salaries or bonuses or foreign billionaires parking their money in safe North American investments.

Which leaves us with a question for the center city’s residents: Do you really want to live with only mostly old, mostly white, but always rich people?

Long ago, residents of Beacon Hill, as one example, decided they did not want to do so.

They believed income, age and racial diversity would enhance that neighborhood’s quality of life. (And it has.) So methodically and purposefully they teamed with developers and institutions. They raised money from the neighborhood to transform an MGH parking garage, a fire-damaged single-room occupancy building for men, and abandoned city property—schools, a police station, a firehouse. Two buildings became community centers. The rest became affordable housing. One of these buildings, Beacon House, is in the spotlight this week, as supporters honor Meredith and Gene Clapp, who spearheaded the effort to help Rogerson Communities buy the building and keep it affordable.

But the city’s downtown surplus properties are running low. One of the few remaining such buildings became the new North Bennet Street School in a swap that expands the popular Eliot public school in the North End.

Beacon Hill is an example of what is happening now throughout the city. Large institutional buildings are becoming luxury housing. Three buildings owned by Suffolk University, the former St. John the Evangelist church property and the former Beacon Press building—all near the State House—are either on the market or have recently been bought by developers.

Now the question is: Is there any hope for more affordable housing in the downtown’s pricey neighborhoods?

Yes, say housing advocates. But the circumstances have changed.

It is no longer the city selling property at affordable prices. Instead it is non-profits who understandably want to reap big rewards from their buildings in pricey neighborhoods. A buyer usually must build luxury housing to cover costs and generate a profit. Sometimes, though, a large institutional building presents problems for luxury conversions, and that creates an opportunity.

There are other ways also to manage the situation, said Sheila Dillon, chief of housing for the City of Boston.

Dillon said several Beacon Hill residents have contacted her, urging the city to require affordable housing as part of the neighborhood’s new developments. The approval process takes the community’s wishes into account.

If a project contains 10 or more units and also needs zoning relief, which most projects do, the city requires that 15 percent of the units be affordable. Moreover, there can be no “poor door,” as there was recently in a New York City project. The affordable units must be constructed and outfitted at the same level of finish as the luxury units.

The city prefers that such units be included in the main project, although developers can make a case for building a separate project or paying into a fund to satisfy the affordability requirement. While the Beacon Hill residents Dillon has heard from prefer to see affordable units incorporated into the neighborhood project, there is an argument for building off site.

“The highest and best use happens to be luxury condos,” said broker Jason Weissman, head of Boston Realty Advisors, about downtown residential buildings.

In a 20-unit development, three would be affordable. For the same price as constructing those three units in a downtown neighborhood, many more could be built in outlying, less expensive districts, he pointed out.

Dillon is aware of that conundrum and said that in many cases a developer will do both—construct some units on site and also contribute to the fund.

There are many ways to bring affordable housing into the downtown neighborhoods, said Robert Beal, president of the real estate development firm, Related Beal.

He ought to know. Using imagination and experience, his company has proposed a 239-unit rental apartment building for low and moderate-income residents who will enjoy benefits usually reserved for high-priced spreads. Located in the fast-growing Bulfinch Triangle near luxury buildings, its northern side overlooks the Bunker Hill Zakim Bridge while southern views incorporate the Greenway.

In smaller projects such as Beacon Hill’s buildings, affordable units are important but their numbers are insignificant unless a special situation arises, which some neighborhood leaders are hopeful, but mum about. Much of the land in downtown Boston neighborhoods is already taken up. Remarkably, though, because of the Big Dig, the freed-up Seaport District and a parking lot here and there, other projects like Related Beal’s could help us get to that juicy mix of ages, ethnicities, incomes and lifestyles that attracted us to the city in the first place.

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