Thursday, July 12, 2007

Community Challenges High-Rise Land "Swap Scheme"

NORTH END — A large contingent of North End residents came out Monday night to the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council’s monthly meeting to hear a new proposal about the future of 585 Commercial Street, a waterfront property currently flanked by community tennis courts and the Steriti Memorial Skating Rink.

A proposal by Byron Gilchrest, president of the development firm Gilchrest Associates, would move the tennis courts, which are on state- owned land, next to the skating rink, allowing for an 800-plus unit condominium high-rise to be built on the corner of Commercial and North Washington Streets.

Although the "swap scheme," as Gilchrest called it, would cost more to build and would require him to give up more valuable land than he would receive in return, he argued that the new proposal, his third on the project, would be most beneficial to the North End, allowing for clearer views of the Old North Church from the Charlestown Bridge as well as a more direct view from Hull Street to the water.

In addition, Gilchrest added that he would create a third walkway to the waterfront from Commercial Street and build a handicapped-accessible ramp from North Washington Street to the Waterfront and build a new marina to replace the rather ailing fishing pier currently off the coast of the park.

Community activists overwhelmingly opposed Gilchrest’s proposal, primarily due to his interest in building a structure that would be as high as 95 feet at its tallest point. The lot is zoned for only 55 feet, and Gilchrest is asking the city for rezoning.

"The rule is 55 feet," declared Robert Skole of the North End. "Why can’t you follow the rules and let us live in peace?"

Accused of exploiting the North End for profit by angry residents, many of which were shouting out of turn, Mr. Gilchrest responded, "Yes, profit. It is more profitable for me to build a 95-foot building than it is to add a floor to the existing building." The existing building on 585 Commercial Street is 46 feet. When further challenged about the rarity of buildings in the North End and waterfront exceeding 55 feet, Gilchrest quickly shot back. "The building we’re in [The Pilot House] is 90 feet."

Against the public outcry of setting a precedent for tall buildings in the North End, "building a wall around the neighborhood," said one concerned neighbor, Gilchrest addressed how much red tape he needed to go through in order to succeed in his proposal. For the land swap alone, he would need a two-thirds vote from the state legislature and a signature from the Governor - not an easy task. Regardless, it still seemed too easy for members of the community concerned with effects on their fast-growing neighborhood. Sheila Ross, another member of the community, declared that "if this one goes through, there will be more."

The units themselves also drew criticism from the community. The new structure, which would house one- and two-bedroom condos exclusively, would also not include any affordable housing on-site. Although, according to Gilchrest and his lawyer, William G. Ferullo, 15 percent of the development will be affordable housing; it will be "off-site," and built simultaneously somewhere else in the North End. This particular effort to accommodate the community's demand for such housing, Gilchrest admitted, had no precedent that he was aware of in the city.

Although there was no resolution regarding the proposal at the meeting - no vote was scheduled - opposition vowed to organize against the swap scheme as well as the entire project to build a 95-footer. The North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council, which was brought under fire by residents at the meeting for not asking tough enough questions in regards to the project, has also appointed a subcommittee including council members Matthew Black, Bill Musto and Jay Kuhlow. Their next meeting will be held on September 10 at The Pilot House on Lewis Wharf.

This story originally appeared in The Boston Bulletin on July 12, 2007.

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