Meeting Held on Proposed Branch Library Redevelopment

On the heels of releasing draft development objectives for the project, the city sponsored another meeting virtually on Wednesday, Oct. 25, to discuss the proposed redevelopment of the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, which would include an affordable housing component, in addition to a new library.

The meeting – the fifth one co-sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and the BPL to date, since the public process kicked off more than two years ago on Oct. 22, 2020 – focused on the draft objectives for the project, which came in response to extensive community feedback.

The mixed-use redevelopment of the library site is expected to include “a new ground-floor space for the library and multiple floors of primarily income-restricted, affordable housing above,” according to the city’s draft objectives for the project. Since the current library, which takes up only about one-third of its 20,000 square-foot, has insufficient space for programming, the city is also requesting that project proposals devote at least 16,000 square feet to the library itself.

The city’s Programming Study for the West End Branch Library, released in October of 2021, outlined the needs of the library, which include a larger branch than today with a transparent façade and prominent entrance, said Priscilla Foley, the BPL’s director of neighborhood services.

The West End Branch Library will be closed for the duration of construction, and no satellite location will open in its place, said Foley. But library staff will continue to offer services and outreach to the neighborhood at this time, including working with ABCD  NE/WE Neighborhood Services, which currently operates a food pantry in the library, as well as providing book pickups and dropoffs, she said.

Joe Backer, senior development officer for the Mayor’s Office of Housing, said the draft project objectives include the building design and characteristics, as well as housing affordability and the unit mix of building. Parking isn’t included in these objectives but would be considered in the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the project.

“That was nothing but an oversight on my part,” said Backer, who added that the assumption is no parking will be available on the site due to the tight space constraints, as well as on account of the site’s close proximity to the MBTA Red and Blue lines.

Moreover, Backer said there are no plans for parking provisions for library staff on site as parking could pose a “prohibitive cost” for would-be developers.

The draft project objectives assert that any proposal should have “synergy” with the 45-foot Otis House, located adjacent to the library site to the east, and should also complement other surrounding buildings, some of which are as tall as 80 to 100 feet, particularly buildings on the northern side of Cambridge Street. But Backer said this issue is “more complicated” than it appears, so the height considerations would likely be revised for the RFP.

Unlike many of her fellow Bostonians who object to excessive building height, Karen Taylor, a longtime Beacon Hill resident and founding publisher of this publication, said she believes the redeveloped library should be “certainly as tall as the building next to it” and added that the “context”  is already in place to erect a tall building alongside the Mass General Hospital site and Charles River Park.

Taylor also said building a taller building next the Otis House could actually serve to attenuate the smaller building, much in the same way that the old State House now “sits there like a jewel” amid the taller buildings in Downtown Crossing.

“If the buildings were the same height, it wouldn’t stand out,” said Taylor. “I’d hope a taller building would do the same thing as on Cambridge Street, so you see the Otis House and [the West End Church] in a different context.”

Like others in attendance, Taylor also said she would be willing to accept increased building height as a tradeoff for more affordable housing on site.

In contrast, another Beacon Hill resident, Jeannette Herrmann, said she hopes that height and FAR (Floor Area Ratio), or massing, particularly in regard to the abutting Otis House and church, are considered carefully in any proposal for the site.

“I hope we’ll think long and hard about the scale question,” said Hermann.

As for the affordable housing goals for the project, Backer said any proposal should include accommodations for a variety of household types while the community has already shown support for the creation of senior and family-friendly housing.

“We want this RFP to call for maximizing breadth and depth of affordable housing, “ said Backer.

Jane Forrestal of West End Place said regardless of whether it’s senior or family housing, she hopes that the residential component of the project would contain two-bedroom and perhaps some three-bedroom units, in addition to one-bedrooms and studios, and that this preference be reflected in the RFP.

Forrestal also said she would like to see the project include affordable housing created for one-time West Enders who were displaced from the neighborhood amid urban renewal.

Zachary Kinnaird, who relocated to Whittier Place from Longfellow Place due to a rent increase at his former residence, said he would like to see the project contain as much affordable housing as can possibly fit on the site.

Rep. Jay Livingstone wrote in chat: “I’m excited about the affordable housing on this site. I also look forward to the upgrades of the library. As you’ve heard tonight, the details of any development are important to the neighborhood, and I look forward to more details coming as the project proceeds.”

The project could also potentially deliver deeply affordable housing-units via a unique partnership with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), since Boston is currently around 2,500 units below its “Faircloth Limit,” the maximum number of federal public housing units in the city eligible for a federal subsidy.

While the city won’t actually have a “direct hand” in determining the building’s tenants, Backer said the city would do its part to ensure that any  information on marketing or plans for housing be disseminated in multiple languages and adhere to the state’s Fair Housing Law. The city will also hold a lottery for residential units, he said.

The city will maintain ownership of the building because of the library component while entering into a long-term agreement with an outside party to operate the residential component, which Backer described as a “fairly common practice” citywide.

Chris Breen, urban renewal manager for the Boston Planning & Development Agency, said the designated project would likely require a “modification” to the city’s 1957 land plan for the West End to change the site’s use from a library to residential and mixed uses.

According to the draft objectives, proposals should also include accessible open space for residents. This could likely take the form of “a roofedeck where the housing component begins,” but would be different from open space at the ground level for the library, said Backer.

The RFP would also likely include language to address the need for temporary parking provisions for Uber, the Ryde, and other ride-share services.

“This will be key,” said Backer, “and that needs to be something that’s explained clearly in all submissions.”

Backer, who has worked for a long time exploring the possibility of combining a branch library with a housing component, said he is thrilled to see this concept becoming a reality. The project would be the first of its kind in the city, he said, although there are also currently similar plans for the Chinatown Branch Library.

Backer said the city expects to release an RFP for the project at the beginning of 2023, with the application process open for a minimum of two months. When all proposals have been received, the city would then hold a “developer presentation” to allow the applicants to field questions and comments from the public on their respective proposals. After a developer is selected for the project, the city’s Article 80 process will commence, which will include further opportunities for community input.

“I think I’ve heard a consensus on the questions you want answered in the RFP,” said Backer. “With that in mind, the rationale is for moving as quickly as we can to issuing the RFP.”

Hermann requested that the city issue a draft RFP for this “important site” prior to the release of the final RFP. however.

“Rushing this process by only a couple of months to not solicit public comments, I think that would be unfortunate,” said Hermann.

Backer replied this decision was “above [his] pay grade,” but said “folks should expect to hear more on that soon.”

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