Above: The back portion of the plan for 32 Exchange Street. Credit: Union Studio

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The Planning Board voted 3-2 Wednesday to approve a development that will see 12 one-bedroom apartments built at 32 Exchange St. The plan calls for the demolition of a dilapidated historic house, an action approved by the Historic District Commission last March. (Read the Planning Board’s decision here.)

The board heard from area residents who were unhappy with the proposal, in particular the loss of the historic house, the project’s density, and its potential to worsen already difficult parking in the area.

Because 4 of the 12 units will be deed-restricted “affordable,” by state law, the developer is able to use the fast-track comprehensive permit process, which gives the Planning Board total oversight, including for any zoning issues. (Any project over 25 percent affordable is eligible to pursue a comprehensive permit.)

The existing house at 32 Exchange St., which is slated for demolition.  

The plan includes a 2-story building at the street, smaller than the current structure, and a three larger buildings in the back (2-story and 3-story). The .46 acre lot backs up to the train tracks and wraps behind the property at 24 Exchange St., owned by Aimee and Michael Heru. Both Herus spoke out against the project, expressing concerns about the size of the project, the possibility of dangerous toxins in the yard (the former property owner had collected a variety of auto parts in the yard over the years), and parking.

Aerial view of plan for 32 Exchange St. Credit: Union Studio

By rights, a 4.6-acre lot can accommodate 5 units, based on the rule of 1 unit per 4,000 sq. ft. of land, with no zoning relief needed. By making at least 20 percent of the units affordable (as this project has), the developer gets a density bonus of 1 additional unit. But a comprehensive permit (with at least 25 percent affordable units) allows the developer to add even more units – in this case, 12 units, which comes out to 1,700 sq. ft per unit. The original plan was for 14 units, 2 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom. The developer had dropped it to 12 one-bedroom units in response to Planning Board concerns about density at a preapplication hearing last Octobe

The architect on the project, Don Powers of Union Studio, designed the Cottages on Greene, another high-density project, on Greene Street. In his presentation, Powers explained that the building at the front of the property would echo the house being demolished. The style of the buildings in the back was to echo the style of the mill building on King and Water streets. Here’s Powers’s presentation about the development, which includes an aerial of the neighborhood and comparables: 32 Exchange Street Proposal/Union Studio

Zoning regulations require 1.5 parking spaces for every unit. In this case, that would mean the project needs 18 spaces. The submitted plan had 16 spaces; on Wednesday, the developer agreed to add two spaces. The developer also went from three affordable units to four.

Still, three members of the Planning Board struggled with what they saw as too many units.

“I don’t see the logic of double density,” said member Nate Ginsburg. “If we allow double density on every project, then throw the zoning out the window and who cares.”

The owners of 24 Exchange St., left, say the plan for 32 Exchange St. is too big and would ruin the texture of the neighborhood.

Ginsburg was expressing the frustration of having zoning laws that can be ignored when a developer seeks a comprehensive permit. The challenge for the Planning Board is that denying a comprehensive permit could prompt the developer to appeal to the State Housing Appeals Board (SHAB), which traditionally sides with developers. That’s because the state wants more affordable housing (and pretty much every community in the state is below the 10 percent affordable units that state law requires).

The tide turned for the project when member Katie Keefe decided to accept 12 units (she’d hoped for 10). That left Ginsburg and member Muhammad Akhtar in the minority, with Keefe joining Chair Jason Gomez and Ben Lupovitz in voting to approve the project. The plan still needs preliminary and final plan approvals.

After the meeting, neighbor James Gorham said he was disappointed by the decision. In particular, he lamented the loss of a historic house. The Historic District Commission voted to approve demolition of the house last March, based on a study by structural engineer Loren Yoder. But projects coming before the HDC do not require abutter notification the way they do when coming before the Planning Board.

“My overall concern is that the community has been left out of the conversation,” said Gorham. “We weren’t fully consulted. The HDC ruled a year ago and we only found out now.”

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