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Multi-family proposal on large Dorchester lot is rejected

The Zoning Board of Appeal today rejected a developer's proposal to replace a derelict single-family home with five condos on a nearly 19,000-square foot lot on Plain Street in Dorchester.

Most of the parcels on Plain Street are closer to 5,000 square feet.

Residents said David Higgins's proposed building, in an area where zoning calls for single-family homes, would be too large and out of character with the neighborhood. They also criticized Higgins for letting the existing property deteriorate, in part by using it to store construction debris and plow trucks.

Unlike most multi-family proposals on side streets these days, the proposed building would not violate zoning requirements for density or distance from property lines, Higgins's attorney, George Morancy said. He said that, without zoning relief - for a multi-family building - Higgins could legally build two single-family homes of 4,700 square feet each.

Nearby residents were joined by the mayor's office and city councilors Frank Baker and Annissa Essaibi-George in opposing the proposal because of the number of units and its design.

The board vote was unanimous.

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Adam, I'm wondering if you know how often this happens? And when it happens does it happen in more white neighborhoods?

I ask because It seems like a lot of similar proposals get approved in Roxbury. Like, there used to be a three family and they get approved to put up a 5 or 6 unit condo. I have no numbers or facts to go on, but it does seem like a more variances for bigger units happen in Roxbury.


There are a lot of long time residents in that neighborhood who are familiar with zoning code. I’m sure they had all their ducks in a row.

A project got approved at 33 Copeland (re 0 copeland st) where there was a lot of vocal community opposition, currently fighting in court. The ZBA got letters from a lot of non abutters via the project sponsor and approved, while us, the neighbors resisting it, had all of our letters of opposition and rejected all the variances that were needed, 9 in total. The parcel abuts city councilor Kim Janey's property and she would not join or hear us on our opposition to the project. It looks like for her she could get a free retaining wall out of it. Tito was more vocal against egregious development in Roxbury more so than Kim, I remember him telling us something would never get built on that property that the residents don't approve. Kim is silent. She comes from a developer family and seemingly provides little to no opposition to controversial developments in Roxbury. I would say ask KIM JANEY why other neighborhoods get to have their vocal opposition heard but that same level of opposition gets overruled in Roxbury.


Board rejects multi-family building in South Boston as too large; then approves even larger building in Roxbury.

Yes, it seems like if both neighbors and elected officials are opposed, then the board will reject a proposal, but if it's just residents (see the linked story), it's far from certain.

No, denials don't happen more in white neighborhoods.

I can't think of more than a handful of proposals in Roxbury, total, actually.

Dorchester is the largest neighborhood in Boston, based on population, and it's spread out between dense and not dense areas.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease: denials happen where neighbors complain.

Except of course in South Boston, where everything is approved 90% of the time.

This response doesn't seem to be based on math.

Nearly 19,000 sq feet on a tiny side street, surrounded by 1ways, not near the T.

I know that street well and recognize that house . I can't imagine 5 added households on that street.

Plain St is not one way. Oakton and Pierce are not one way. Chickatawbut St is not one way where it intersects with Plain St. Chickatawbut becomes a one way between Narragansett and Neponset.

It is a quarter mile from the bus stop which is a 6 minute walk.

It is not tiny. It is a normal width street.


The "NIMBY's" you complain about stayed in Neponset and raised their families when everyone else looked down their pompous noses at Dorchester. They have the right under the law to fight to enforce zoning to protect the quality of life which the Code is intended to protect. Send the carpet-bagging speculators somewhere else to do their greedy business. BTW, our peers in Mattapan and Roxbury are realizing that they have had the same experience, and they are fighting the same fight. The tide is turning.


How am I attacking Nimbys by correcting the record?


* or maybe they just were selected for because they were the only people who weren't displaced by rising rents...

Sorry, but why does a street being narrow mean you can't multi-family housing on it?

Plain Street is 20 feet wide, which is about two feet narrower than 90% of the residential streets in Boston, many of which easily support multi-family housing. Also, it's about twice as wide as the average side street in most European cities, and, at least in Paris, those streets manage to do just fine with 6 story buildings with no setbacks or side yards. Better, in fact, if walkability and carbon emissions per capita are your metric for comparison.

Exhibit A why Boston's housing is unaffordable. Suburban snob single family zoning has no place in a city.


Conflict-of-interest note: I live in a single-family house.

With that out of the way, Boston is large enough it can and does support both single-family homes and dense multi-family development.

Aside from a few streets in the outer reaches of West Roxbury and Brighton (and maybe parts of Dorchester), we're not talking "suburban"-sized lots or houses - our house is roughly 1,300 square feet on a tenth of an acre (so that's what, 4,300 square feet or so?) on a street where most of the houses are no bigger (at least on our side, on the other side of the street most of the houses are two-families).

There's plenty of in Boston land where developers can put up large projects (or in this case, larger, since five units is hardly gigantic), or even just do "infill" style work (also today, the board approved a developer's plan to build an extension to a single-family house on Conway Street in Roslindale and convert the new building into four condos) without putting in some ugly cookie-cutter plastic-panel thing that looks absolutely nothing like the rest of the neighborhood.

It is not as much about rich vs poor, as have and have not. This particular single family zone is is serpentine. I live here and I was surprised that it was zoned single family because all of the streets in this zone have existing multifamily properties on them. 18 Plain street is on the zoning line, and it backs up into 2 family zoning.

This kind of zoning allows neighbors to be gatekeepers to any new construction. Most of people living in this neighborhood could not afford to buy their home at the current value, but they fight to prevent anyone else from moving in.

The owner has come down from 8 units to 5 units. It is clear that the abutters will fight anything that he proposes. I haven't seen any pictures so ugly seems irrelevant.

California effectively removed single family zoning, and that will happen here too, if people keep ignoring the housing crisis.


@adamg - with all due respect, the dev could fit 4 of your single family houses on this lot at 1/10th of an acre lot size. They were proposing 5.

The fact that we cannot build the SFH's you live in on this lot is a problem.

With that out of the way, Boston is large enough it can and does support both single-family homes and dense multi-family development.

What does it mean for a neighborhood to be able to "support" single-family homes? Because I would argue that if you need zoning laws to force developers to build them, and you still have developers trying to build multi-family homes despite those laws, then the neighborhood really isn't supporting them at all.

What's more, if a neighborhood CAN support a multi-family home, and you use the force of law to prevent a developer from building that type of housing, you are indeed practicing exactly the sort of class-based exclusion that these laws were designed to enable.

without putting in some ugly cookie-cutter plastic-panel thing that looks absolutely nothing like the rest of the neighborhood.

It sounds like the presumption here is that apartments = "ugly cookie-cutter plastic" and single family homes = "nice" even though we haven't seen an actual proposal for a single family home. Talk about classist. But also, to the second part of your statement, the implication here seems to be that apartments should only be allowed in places that already have apartments. Sorry, but how is this not just a backhanded way to completely prevent almost all infill (and thus contribute to our housing crisis)?

I guess my question for the mayor is: Why is this property off-limits to development when so many poorer and less "pastoral" neighborhoods are fair game? This parcel isn't exactly the most transit accessible in the city, but it's a roughly 20 minute walk to Ashmont and a 40 minute two-seat ride downtown (would be shorter if we took bus lanes seriously).

Look at a map it is . 25 miles from the bus. Does the stop have to be in your driveway for something to be transit accessible ?

Dorchester is snobby now? Oh please.

Dorchester is a very big place, and parts of it are definitely snobby.

Oh God yes. We’re super snobby. We’ll deny it but we are.

You can’t put condos on that street. 2 nice singles, absolutely. There’s already too many people in our neighborhood.

Stay In Neponset
Cedar Grove Groupies

This is a total bag job Higgins most be a honest man, if he got denied with one violation on almost 1/2 acre of land and both direct abutters supporting it !!! (i just looked at the hearing via youtube) he had 72 letters of support, what more can someone do? 5 town homes in the heart of Neponset with 10 Parking spaces Hello folks


fire the entire zoning board and make it an elected position? They don't care about how many letters are submitted, and they limit the number of non politicians that get to speak. All of the decisions are made before the hearings behind closed doors.


And watch who finances the candidates.


An elected ZBA would be affordable housing’s worst nightmare. I encourage you to look at who the electorate is demographically.

because only nimbys vote?

To provide more context, homeowners tend to vote in local elections in higher numbers. An elected zoning board would be beholden to an electorate desiring the status quo they bought in under be maintained. Well, they would be beholden to the real estate lobbyists that bankroll their campaign, but that is a different story.

Look at the contentious elections that just passed in Newton. One of the big issues was development of the parking lot air rights at Riverside Station. NIMBYs vote.

I agree. The general rule seems to be "the more esoteric the election, the smaller, whiter, older, and richer the turnout." And I can think of few things more esoteric than a ZBA election.

If renters don't vote, then nothing will change.

Imagine a zoning board election in an off year. Think 16% is low?

When we over develop we lose the neighborhood feel that makes the location so desirable. The property is zoned for 2 single family homes. Don’t try to make the argument about affordable housing. It’s not. It’s about profit. 2 singles would sell quickly and for a good profit. But the developer is only interested in his profit. Not the needs of the poor. The proposal as it was had many issues. But it’s nice to know that Mr. Higgins has friends that know how to use the comment section.

housing may not be a crisis for you but it is a crisis. Are you waiting for tents in Garvey park?

2 developments of similar size in the neighborhood have units unsold for over a year. This street is narrow. And the direct abutters on Plain, Oakton and Rosaria are against this development. It’s hard for working people to show up at these hearings. Sensible development with input from the neighborhood works. Mr Higgins wants neither of those things.

2 developments of similar size in the neighborhood have units unsold for over a year.

I think Boston's ultra-low vacancy rate is pretty well established. Your anecdotal observation (based on what, exactly?) of two developments in the neighborhood does not mean the housing crisis is suddenly "solved." Go look for new 1 bedroom apartments on Zillow and I think you'll see just how insanely small the available inventory is. Most real estate analysts consider 10% to be a healthy vacancy rate. In practice that means there should probably be at least 2 available units on every street the size of Plain St (and more once this project has been built). Anything below that is considered tight, and 4% (where we are now) is basically a crisis.

It’s hard for working people to show up at these hearings.

I doubt most "working" people give two shits about an apartment building being built on their street, so instead what we get is snobby retiree busybodies who hate change and they show up at every goddamned meeting.

It seems to be in dispute whether all the neighbors are against this.

Two 1.5 million dollar single family homes = Neighborhood character preserved.

A whole building full of apartments for half that price or less = Neighborhood character destroyed?

If you look him up in Masslandrecords, there are a fair amount of tax liens in the past for his properties in Clam Point. And he had a tax lien on this property until recently. I wonder if that is why all of the city officials came out against it.

Good point, David.

on the City Council oppose this?

The proposed design would NOT undermine the character of the neighborhood. If anyone looked at the proposal, they would see that it would beautify the neighborhood that for the past 4 years has been an eyesore!! Total shocked this was denied today. I question how this project is denied. NO reason!! Direct neighbor’s on both sides support this project, but let’s go with the neighbors two streets over ?????

My local example of a similar development is 84 Durnell Ave in Roslindale. For years it was a single family with an empty lot next door. Now it is four condos build in 2016.

You can see the original lot on the street view on Zillow.

11k sqf lot. 4x 2,550 sq condos. On a one way street with a mix of single and multi-families.

The owner should renovate the existing structure and add to the back of the building. Then he should build an additional single family home with 12 bedrooms. Then he should open both as sober housing. No variance needed.


I love this idea.

This property is up for sale, along with the houses on both sides of it.