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Harrison and Albany to see incentivized development

Towering skyscrapers line Albany St. Commuters walk down tree-lined streets on their way to South Boston. Residences, stores and restaurants pepper Harrison Ave.

It’s a vision that may not be the reality today, but it could be the neighborhood’s future.

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As dusk fell over Boston Monday night, Sept. 12, close to ten former and current residents convened in front of Gaslight for a tour led by Marc Lacasse, arranged through the United South End Settlement’s Walking Tour program. A member of the Harrison-Albany Corridor Advisory Group, and a former South Ender, Lacasse planned the tour in order to educate attendees on how Harrison Ave. and Albany St. may change in the future following the completion of the Harrison-Albany Corridor study. The study began in early 2009.

“Mayor [Thomas] Menino commissioned a planning study of Harrison-Albany Corridor envisioning it as the next great frontier in the South End for development given the potentially developable land down here: surface parking lots, underutilized parcel, buildings that have been abandoned,” Lacasse said.

Lacasse was sure to note he did not represent that advisory group of the study, which is composed of 30 individuals who do business in or around, or live in or around, the study area. “I don’t speak for the study, I don’t speak for the BRA, I don’t speak for the city. I just speak for myself and what I know based on the past two years,” he said.

The main goal of the study is to increase density in the Harrison-Albany area by inspiring developers to build taller and bigger. The end of the Corridor study will culminate in a list of zoning code change recommendations, which they will submit to the Boston Zoning Commission.

“The way to make something happen in a district is zoning. It’s a good, old-fashioned tool,” Lacasse said.

Along the two roads today, current zoning codes only allow for 70-foot buildings. Zoning recommendations will include changing that height limit to 100 feet, with an incentivized layer that allows developers to build to 150 or 200 feet if they add other amenities to the neighborhood – affordable housing, artist studios, or green spaces, for example.

“By incentivizing certain things the city would like to see back here, it encourages developers to actually do those things,” Lacasse said. “It also makes those particular parcels of land very valuable.”

One final, public, meeting of the Harrison-Albany Corridor Advisory Group, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 6 p.m., will go into more detail on the proposed zoning recommendations already discussed by the group.

On the strip of land between I-93 and Albany St., “the city envisions creating a high-rise spine,” Lacasse said, constructed by developers who take advantage of the incentives offered. Standing at the corner of Canton St. and Albany St, Lacasse painted a picture of what the far edge of the South End might look like in the future: “Envision driving down I-93 in the future, you could see a spine of 20-story buildings along the edge of the highway, which creates a visual cue that ’Wow, this is a big city with a lot going on,’ and also provides a buffer from this part of the neighborhood to the expressway.”

One area of the South End will preserve its current character under the Corridor plan: the Back Streets. The Back Streets, which runs from Dedham St. to E. Canton St., is home to many light industrial businesses. The BRA and the Advisory Board are hoping to keep it this way.

The Back Streets will be the only area of the study where residences are not encouraged or zoned. “…A lot of business do their trade in the Back Streets neighborhood, so the goal is to maintain that as a mini economic district in the South End,” Lacasse said.

Back Streets will be the site of infrastructure improvements though, with the proposed plan being to add new street lights, tree-lined streets, better looking loading docks, and more.

The BU Medical sub-district will be subject to zoning changes, as well as under the purview of Boston Medical Center’s own master plan.

New York Streets District is seen as having the most development potential in the South End. It’s proximity to two highways, downtown Boston, and Chinatown makes it a highly coveted spot. Two projects that have been approved or are in the pipeline with the BRA in that area include a two-building hotel and a development on the current site of the Boston Herald.

In the New York Streets, from E. Berkeley St. to Herald St., and the SoWa District, from Dedham St. to E. Berkeley, more residences, retail and commercial spaces, and taller and denser buildings are in the neighborhood’s future.

“We want more people in an area of the South End that is essentially non-residential” Lacasse said, adding the hope is to make the two sub-districts busy for 18 hours a day instead of just during working hours. “The way to make any residential neighborhood that is to bring in people.”

The Harrison-Albany Corridor study was started by the Mayor in 2009 to try to do for the Harrison and Albany area what was done in the 1990s for Washington St.: bring vitality to the area and make it a place people want to be.

Lacasse said that after the study’s completion, the city, residents, businesses and developers would have to work together to unleash the potential of the far part of the neighborhood.

“People frequently say to me ’When are they going to build it?’ When is it going to start happening?’” Lacasse said. “But they is 100 different property owners–90 percent of property that comprises the study area is privately owned. The purpose of the study is to encourage development, is to create a road map for future development.”

He added, “So they aren’t going to build anything because there is no they; it’s a collective group of property owners who will then take the study and say ’This is what the city wants us to do.’”

To hear more about the Harrison Albany Corridor Strategic Plan Study, visit the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s website attinyurl.com/36kgcrg. The final meeting for the Advisory Group, which is open to the public, will take place at the Franklin House (11 E. Newton St.) at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sep. 20.

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