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Zoning board rejects 166-unit apartment complex on Cambridge Street in Allston

In a 3-3 vote today, the Zoning Board of Appeal today rejected a developer's plans for a two-building, 166-unit complex on Cambridge Street in Union Square that would have featured a sizeable number of "compact" units as well as some "affordable" studios aimed at artists.

Board members questioned whether the smaller units allowed under a city pilot will really translate into reduced rents and blasted the developer for a presentation that left them scratching their heads over just how small some of the studio units would be and how much "amenity" space the proposal would set aside for such things as shared cooking and dining space, a gym and a co-working area. The "compact" pilot program requires developers to set aside such space.

Anchorline Partners had proposed two seven-story buildings with 80 parking spaces. on land now occupied by an auto-body shop and a parking lot at 449 Cambridge St. and 2 Emery St. A total of 17% of the units would be rented as affordable, compared to the city requirement of 13%, with eight of those units specifically aimed at artists looking for live/work space.

The BPDA board approved the project last August, but it needed several zoning variances because of its height, density and amount of parking. "That does not mean you have a rubber stamp when you come to this board," board Chairwoman Christine Araujo said.

Zoning-board members - who have approved a number of "compact living" proposals in the past - quickly raised a series of objections, including the fact that some of the studios were really small and that the developers were unable to say exactly what they were planning for the indoor "amenity" space called for with compact units. After hearing several possible uses, board member Kosta Ligris said it would be tough to fit all that into the roughly 2,000 square feet allotted as "amenity space."

Board member Mark Erlich agreed and raised the issue of really small studios. "There seems to be a gulf between what is actually being proposed and and the way you're presenting it and we don't appreciate it."

Araujo said developers and the BPDA keep pushing compact units as a way to reduce rents, but she said she has yet to see any data that proves that's actually happening - and that she is concerned about increasingly dense development along Cambridge Street in particular.

Moira McCrave, an aide to City Councilor Liz Breadon, who made housing affordability a part of her campaign two years ago, said that data from other neighborhoods seems to show rents might be $200 to $500 a month cheaper, but that "we're not seeing as much rental savings as we would like" in proposals specifically for Allston.

Araujo said she found it telling that two members of the advisory group the BPDA set up to consider the plans for 449 Cambridge St. and 2 Emery St. spoke before her board to oppose the project.

Despite his misgivings, Erlich moved to approve the project, both because the city does have an official policy of supporting compact units and because 17% of the units would be rented as affordable, more than the city requires.

Tony D'Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, said his group supported the project, but barely. He said that for some reason, Boston has "targeted Allston" to serve as the test bed for the smaller-unit pilot. Some eight or nine projects have been approved under it for the neighborhood, although none have yet opened for occupancy.

BPDA filings and documents on the proposal.

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Seriously. Do we have any renters on the ZBA? At all? Do they have any friends who have studios or friends who live with roommates but would prefer an apartment to themselves? Or is it all just homeowners who hang out with other homeowners and can't imagine what it's like for someone to try to find an apartment in this city?

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Voting closed 72

I get what you're saying, but I still think the city approving what are essentially 21st century flop houses is a terrible idea for everyone. They won't get the tenants they want and there will be no neighborhood benefits (like lowering rent).

I once heard a presentation for microunits in east Fenway where they said a 600sqft 2 bedroom would go for $3,000 and 250sqft studios would be $1,300. The developer kept swearing up & down that students wouldn't be allowed to rent and they would also ensure only 1 person per room. An attendee asked who would possibly pay $3k for a tiny two-bedroom that didn't have a kitchen, to which the developer responded "recent law school grads working at Ropes & Gray [a top-tier law firm at the Pru]." Literally everyone in the room laughed for a solid 20 seconds.

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Voting closed 50

And yet that's exactly who lives there. And if we won't build 400 square foot studios for law associates, they don't just rent bigger units, they bunk up with two roommates in a 1,200 square foot apartment, outbidding a family for the same apartment and ultimately ending up with about the same amount of living space but much less privacy than they'd prefer.

Just because you can't remember what it was like to live in 400 square feet doesn't mean no one else can.

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Voting closed 38

if we won't build 400 square foot studios for law associates, they don't just rent bigger units, they bunk up with two roommates in a 1,200 square foot apartment, outbidding a family for the same apartment and ultimately ending up with about the same amount of living space but much less privacy than they'd prefer.

I'm sorry, but you're out of your mind. No 25 year-old attorney making $170k+ is renting a microunit apartment that doesn't have a kitchen!

Also, you say that these units are built for the niche market of well-off 20's somethings (who are happy to have roommates). I disagree, but ok. Then you say that without these units they're somehow outbidding families? What?!? Do you not understand that the majority of rent increase, particularly in Allston/Brighton has been driven by off-campus college students (who are willing to go 2+/bedroom)?

Let me spell out the fear for microunits in Allston/Brighton, Fenway/Kenmore, Back Bay/Bay Village, because it's all the same. The developers promise these economy units (without kitchens & sometimes living rooms, known elsewhere as dorms) are in-demand, however the only people willing to pay for tiny flop-house like accommodations are college students living off-campus. So the developer's selling point of microunits somehow helping the neighborhood lower rental costs has yet to be shown anywhere in Boston.

To be clear, I'm all for more development. This city needs more units, however permitting microunits (and all the zoning variances they require) is a hurdle for a reason--it's a bad idea. No one wants dorms in their neighborhood.

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Voting closed 34

We need more and better units. Not something from Sorry to Bother You. I am in the demographic they claim to attract and neither myself nor anyone I know is into living in a micro unit. While I would love to be able to live in a more affordable apartment, that apartment looks like a 1 or 2 bed, not a 200sqf studio.

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Voting closed 23

Okay fine then: 22 year old software engineers making $90k, not lawyers making $170k. I'm not sure I understand your complaint. Are you saying you think this developer is going to build units they can't sell, or that you don't like the people who will live there? If it's the former, that sounds like a good problem, because they'll have to lower the price. If it's the latter, where do you think those people are going to live instead, exactly?

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Voting closed 21

I'm not sure I understand your complaint. Are you saying you think this developer is going to build units they can't sell, or that you don't like the people who will live there? If it's the former, that sounds like a good problem, because they'll have to lower the price. If it's the latter, where do you think those people are going to live instead, exactly?

This is the ultimate strawman argument that developers use for microunits. "It will help young professionals be able to afford to live & work in Boston." And every city wants to lure young people with disposable incomes living in their city. Developers know this, and so they flat-out lie about microunits. The reason they lie is that microunits favor the developers. Remember my first post about a 600sqft 2-bedroom apt. (without a kitchen) going for $3,000/month & tiny studios going for $1,300? While that amount is slightly less than other nearby units, a standard two-bedroom is closer to ~800sqft and a normal studio is closer to ~375sqft. In the microunit layout, the developer gets more money per sqft and that's why they want them. That's the entire reason. If developers didn't have to deal with zoning regulations, all new development in Boston would either be high-end luxury buildings or studio & 1-bedroom microunits (often without kitchens & living rooms) because they can get sky-high amounts per sqft for both options. Only the neighbors care about overtaxing the neighborhood with all the microunit zoning variances or that the promised "young professionals" will never live in these units. Boston currently has zero enforcement mechanism on properties to restrict undergrads, for example, even if it's written into the building's Deed!

So again, as a developer, I promise the City that the microunits I'm building will only be for young professionals and definitely not for students living off-campus. I even offer to put that in the building's Master Deed to appease neighborhood groups. Once my building is built, I don't have to follow-through on any of those promises. When it (shockingly!) turns out that young professionals don't want to live in a 250sqft studio without a kitchen, I then happily decide to rent to students, which I knew was the real target demographic all along.

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Voting closed 18

I then happily decide to rent to students, which I knew was the real target demographic all along.

Ok, but if those students need a place to live and are willing to pay that price, what's the issue with that? Seems like that gets them out of the other places that they'd currently go to instead, which then opens those apartments up to people who don't want to live in these microunits.

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Voting closed 8

I’m not in the 170,000 lawyer demographic. Closer to the tech. But the true demographic I’m in is the demographic where I would not like to live with roommates. Micro units like this are not living alone. It is the same exact thing as living with roommates except on a larger scale. You still have your own room but share common areas. How is that offering something different? Also, if I remember correctly, I believe some of these micro units are being advertised as crash pads for rich execs who live in the burbs and need to spend the night in Boston every once in a while. That approach definitely doesn’t do anything for the housing disparity. When I was a student, I would have gone for a micro unit, sure. As an adult, no way. Most people would rather live with friends than a ton of strangers sharing a kitchen.

Edit: also, microunits remind me of Hong Kong’s housing crisis. People literally living in 5x5 rooms and sharing common spaces. Most people agree that living like that sucks. We need to develop in Boston, we need to develop housing that people actually want and can use long term. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of space. I’m not a housing expert so I’m sure others have better ideas, but microunits are not a good idea. Why don’t the schools build more dorms so students stop crowding our housing source? That might be a good place to start.

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Voting closed 22

the system right now is not sufficient to allow people to live outside of the urban core and still be able to work, shop and spend time in the city comfortably. So, we have to all compete for the same teeny tiny spaces even though we really don´t want to.

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Voting closed 5

You get your own kitchen, your own bathroom, and your own front door. I think most people would agree those things make all the difference in the world. The thing is, it's more expensive than living with roommates, so 100% of people who choose to live here could have chosen to live with roommates instead if they wanted to.

And re the Hong Kong example: People live like that because it's what they can afford. If you just outlawed 5x5 rooms you wouldn't suddenly be granting people the ability to live in larger units, you would be making them homeless. That's basically what we do in this country. It's the "let them eat cake" of the housing world.

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Voting closed 12

That sound super strange--kitchens are required for dwelling units. Are they just small kitchens? A combo kitchen/living area is pretty common in modern apartment layouts.

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Voting closed 6

No 25 year-old attorney making $170k+ is renting a microunit apartment that doesn't have a kitchen!

Young high-priced lawyers don't cook.

They grab a bagel (etc) on the way to work. They eat lunch and dinner at work, and come home late in an Uber paid for by the firm. They go out on the weekends.

And that $170k (which is high for a 25-year old attorney, though not impossible)? How much is going to pay for both undergraduate and graduate student loans that could easily total $500,000? Hint: as much as possible.

The values of young people around housing simply don't align with people in their 40s and over. It's hard for old farts like us to understand, but it continues to hold true. And one thing many of them really don't want, and are willing to make sacrifices to get: no roommates.

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Voting closed 8

So in your mind, the way this works, is students take the units, and that somehow has no impact on the rest of the housing market in Allston? What units are the students living in now? What happens when the students move in to the micro-units, and the vacated units go back on the market? That's how these lower rents in Allston.

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Yea...I used to believe that too a few years ago. Sounds nice.

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Treats the applicants and citizen commenters with respect. A real peach. Not burned out at all!

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Araujo said developers and the BPDA keep pushing compact units as a way to reduce rents, but she said she has yet to see any data that proves that's actually happening - and that she is concerned about increasingly dense development along Cambridge Street in particular.

Moira McCrave, an aide to City Councilor Liz Breadon, who made housing affordability a part of her campaign two years ago, said that data from other neighborhoods seems to show rents might be $200 to $500 a month cheaper, but that "we're not seeing as much rental savings as we would like" in proposals specifically for Allston.

Okay help me out here. Is there not enough data? If that's the case, how are we able to determine that in other neighborhoods compact units rent for between $200 to $500 less than standard units?

In what world is $500 a month not enough rent savings to entertain a policy?

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Voting closed 25

So the board is complaining that the units are “too small” and don’t have enough amenities, but the rents aren’t cheap enough.

Do they know anything about supply and demand? If potential renters don’t want a unit that small at that price, they won’t rent it. The the landlord will lower the price until someone is willing to take it.

I have a factual question: Does no kitchen mean no stove or refrigerator, like a dorm room? Or just no separate kitchen room? There’s nothing new or unusual about one-room studios with an alcove kitchen.

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Voting closed 8

Interesting case. I checked out the BPDA filling and it looks like the development team has spent some serious time and money on this project, only to be stalled by a ZBA board member or two at the very end.

Since much of the beef seems to be over the size of the units, does anyone know what the break-down looks like? As in sqft per studio or one-bedroom? I spent a while scrutinizing the application but I couldn't find it.

Oh, and for folks who think that living in a space under 400 sqft is so degrading, no need to fly to Honk-Hong or Tokyo to express your outrage. You can pick up your pitchfork, hop in your SUV (or the Red Line) and head to Umass Boston or just about any other university campus for that matter. In this building competed in 2018, four unrelated adults may share a 360 sqft sleep/study room and pay over $1000 a month each for that privilege ($5k per academic semester).

https://www.umb.edu/housing/on_campus/floor_plans_room_rates

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Voting closed 10

No need to poke around in a college dorm. Plenty of legitimate non-student people around here live in 400 square foot apartments. This wasn’t invented by the zoning board when they created this pilot program.

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Voting closed 6

about lowering rents and yet no real talk from anyone about rent control.

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Voting closed 6

If they don't let anyone build the units in the first place.
This compact living is a pilot program, as in, an experiment to test a hypothesis that more units at smaller sizes will have an overall net impact on pricing. They arrived at this hypothesis by looking at data and market studies from other cities across the world that have seen these positive impacts and they want to see if that will happen in Boston.

As everyone knows, getting projects approved remains a painful multiyear political campaign, so even through the program has existed for a couple of years, only a few have been approved. None have even started construction, nonetheless completed and cycled through leases to get data on its impact on the market.

But now, because there hasn't been any data from these non-existence building to prove their impact, the ZBA wants to shut the whole experiment down?

You can't complain about a lack of data when you haven't even started the data collection phase of an experiment.

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Voting closed 5

Living in a pandemic in the city, I need to wear a mask to check the mail, take my trash out, let my roommate in if he forgets his keys. But we're still considering building micro units and dorm-style living for adults in which they would have to share kitchens?

Is this a joke?

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Voting closed 18

but at some point, the pandemic will end, and we'll return to normal life. In which case dorm-style living will be used across the world for all kinds of people.

Really, tailoring all our future construction to assume that a global pandemic is always taking place seems like a pretty terrible idea in both the short and long-term.

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Voting closed 8

As someone who currently has roommates and wishes they could afford not to, I would have to be desperate to move out of the place where I know the people whose messes I am cleaning up as opposed to complete strangers. Who wants to do 50 other people's dishes before you have to do your own? These places sounds like dorm rooms but with no RA to enforce any rules. Am I missing something here?

What exactly makes some of these units artist live work spaces? Will there places to safely dispose of paints and toxic solvents? There were artists lofts in this area not even 10 years ago and now those buildings are gone and replace by faux luxury rentals. Has anyone who creates these "artist friendly living spaces" actually met an artists?

It looks like some of these units are two and three beds? So will people be sharing and apartment and also common areas? I looked through the presentation and I it's not clear to me.

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Voting closed 7

1. Shared common spaces does not mean shared kitchens (pretty sure that's still against the rules in Boston since every individual apartment is required to have a stove, sink, and fridge, and:

2. Building management generally cleans the common areas.

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Voting closed 7