Letters to the Editor- We Need a More Inclusive Process

The following letter was delivered to the Winthrop Town Council as well as the Winthrop Transcript.

Dear Council Members and Town Manager,

To further the idea of obtaining resident input to a planning and development process that has thus far been primarily the province of the Town Council and the new Town Manager, it would seem to me that a process for a more inclusive method would be well worth Town Hall’s trouble to catalogue. With the current decision to shift Winthrop into a revenue-generating gear, starting with the target zone of the new Center Business Development District and inviting plans for housing into a dense downtown area, such a choice may not constitute the best factor in realizing a “Vision” for the Town.

The problem that all of us who live and work in proximity to the Center are fully (and daily) aware of the tight confines of road and vehicular access along Woodside Avenue; especially after the recent storm that left the ordinarily 12-foot-wide travel lanes even narrower by built-up snow banks. That fact alone is of serious concern for our municipal workers who service the community with their trucks, plows, engines and other vehicles. There are also huge issues of flooding from waterways surrounding the center in this lowest gradient zone, let along increased water levels from storms. These facts are part of our current vision.

I really wonder if capable urban planners and architectural designers really have a better sense of how the center functions than do the people and merchants who use the Center on a daily basis. I remind readers that guidelines were adopted by the Town in 2015 for “amending the Centre Business District (CBD) Zoning with the help of MAPC. The new zoning allowed multi-story, mixed-use development by-right across the entire district and included setback, parking, height and use amendments to the old CBD zoning”. (my underline) So the regulatory officials, whose objective planning analysis (without residential, non-expert input I presume) created this report, seems to be the last word (or vision) in what our town should do.

However, as developers first approach Town Hall and seek information about what can be done, they will first find guidelines that have been “amended” by our Planning Board, and which provide for increased heights, relief for parking, special conditions and other latitude that are most favorable to a developer, but very unfavorable to everybody else. These amendments are precisely what an LLC developer has used to fashion their huge housing project atop the old CVS property. As mentioned in an earlier opinion piece, the justification for allowing this is that such new development will create new revenues for the Town, to supplement tight and/or diminishing municipal budgets.

Unfortunately, most towns believe this approach is an opportunity for economic growth and quickly respond with housing needs.  Many towns start building housing without considering the negative consequences that overdevelopment will bring. Growth management strategies should be better enacted in Winthrop so that development does not occur uncontrollably and diminish the resources that make this town a unique and desirable location.

The Town’s new guidelines have identified an “overlay” CBD zoning area for the Center, which mixes the business district with the nearby residential properties. This overlay area has not been adequately portrayed in a diagram of some form, nor has it been made available first to the abutters, let alone the general public. Abutters were shocked to find that their homes were included not in a residential zone, but in this new mixed overlay zone; so that new adjacent development could very easily compromise their property, and negatively impact their homes and its values; besides other effects of a higher building, shadows, traffic, noise, density and other things compounding their daily lives.

The last time the Town had a fully descriptive Zoning map was in 1987, and it was updated twenty years later in 2007; both of which documents were prepared for the Town by this writer. Why the secret or invisible document for the new CBD zoning?

As exemplified by the recent five-story housing proposal and master plan imagery (on Winthrop’s website) generated from the amended zoning criteria, it seems to this resident who has been engaged in professional design capacities for many decades, that other critical aspects seem to have been overlooked. Conditions of an existing place that a designer would address is the context of a site, and how a new building would fit into that context. The scale of place, both of the immediate neighboring buildings, but also the surrounding area would be other critical factors. Precedents and evaluation of historical elements, open space versus building volumes and edges, sight lines, existing vegetation, street furnishings, as well as colors, materials setbacks, solid versus transparent, and other such compatible factors would be assessed (by a Design Review Board) for preparing a basic design approach to develop a congruous design that would integrate well into a place.  Not to overlook basic volume and envelope criteria as square footage of build-out, parking spaces and accessibility, heights and other volume-shaping requirements. The impact of all of the above criteria (and others) is also a serious issue for any intended permanent structure.

One of the very first purposes and criteria indicated in these new Zoning Guidelines states that any new project be “compatible with community character”. This very phrase immediately suggests that the Planning Board has some idea of what our town character happens to be. I suggest that if the Planning Board does have some criteria of what that “character” is, they should let residents know about it. But I’m highly skeptical that it does. We all have varied perceptions about the Town, and how it appears to each of us; whether we live in the Centre, or down at the Point, or Up in the Highlands, or in the Maze of Court Road, etc.

I propose that all residents can take stock of what the Town means to us, and in some collective manner – perhaps initiated by each precinct’s Town Council member – identify the elements that would help us all determine the “Character” of our Town. Document how you see the Town, and send your ideas to the Town Council and Town Manager. That character is what we should celebrate. It’s up to us to insist that everything that is done to “improve” or develop the Town, should fit within that Character.

What makes Winthrop what it is? For a start, we all know our Town is a peninsula with two points of access; it’s surrounded by ocean, harbor and marsh; it has beaches, yacht clubs, a distinctive Water Tower (see by at least 15 million people arriving annually at Logan Airport). There is an American treasure in the first period Deane Winthrop House, as well as distinctive public buildings, churches, and grand houses from early to recent history; plus a unique greenhouse; there are many fine restaurants; plus two new schools; we have a well-used public landing, a ferry, fine vistas to the City; an official “Winthrop Walk”; Inns fully reserved into the Fall. We have annual events that have taken on a traditional mantel, like the Strawberry Festival, the July Fourth Parade and evening’s fireworks, the Christmas Tree Lighting, etc. There are many other active aspects to our town that we can proudly identify as unique to our community; and maybe even expand on such events. All this contributes to our “character”, our unique “culture”, reaffirming a collective identity for “Winthrop By The Sea.” These comprise only part of Winthrop’s Character. All these, and more, should be the basis for expanding our Collective Vision with whatever projects serve that purpose.

If with any new development projects, we seek, maintain, and promote a strong identity from the above mentioned characteristics, there is no reason why Winthrop cannot rival other seaside places that attract numerous visitors (and revenues) because of their inviting and unique character – i.e. Marblehead, Rockport, Salem, Newburyport, Ipswich, Gloucester, and others. Our liveliness and vibrancy will contribute to our Town’s livelihood.

In consideration of the thousands of new housing units rising in surrounding communities of Revere, East Boston, Chelsea, and the impending potential of further density at Suffolk Downs, I pose the question of why would Winthrop want to invite and create more housing? Why would we want more vehicles crowding our already crowded streets? Why pressure our close-to capacity schools with more demands from more parents? Why further stretch the capacities of our public services? We need transformative ideas and effective projects, like Mike Carney’s transformation of the bus station at the Bridge, not housing units.

I propose that Winthrop invest its resources, talents, ideas and Town Hall commitment to furthering its culture; promote our Town’s very smallness that can provide amenities and attractions that bring visitors here to enjoy, spend their monies, and find welcome relief from the overcrowding density that is enveloping (if not strangling) every other community around us. Let folks come for our fresh air, beaches, ocean breezes and open spaces, its varied topography, and engage in its small scale environs, and inviting amenities. Other towns have done this, there are precedents to be seen and drawn from, which models can help us in refashioning our Town. Let’s find the models here and elsewhere, and make these kind of changes happen for Winthrop.

The writer has been a resident for over 60 years, with a home and business in Town. As an architectural  designer, he has designed the Medical Center on Crest Avenue for Larry Holmes, and house additions for many residents of the community.

Frank M. Costantino

ARE PROJECTS PROTECTED FROM RISING SEA LEVELS

Dear Editor,

As a person with family ties to Winthrop and many fond memories of Winthrop and Revere, it was exciting for me to read about the new life for Suffolk Downs and the new projects underway in Revere.  However, I have real concerns about the future of these projects, given recent reports of serious devaluation of properties vulnerable to increased flooding.

The vast majority of scientists now agree that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the melting of the polar ice and the rise of sea levels. Our government experts have warned us that we have only 12 years to keep temperatures from warming above 1.5 degrees to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change  Scientists say that we have an urgent need to phase out the use of fossil fuels by 2050

I ask Rep. DeLeo’s constituents in this same geographical region so vulnerable to flooding to urge him to support the bill recently introduced in the Massachusetts House by Representative Balser (HD 1248).  This bill provides for an ambitious and feasible transition to clean energy in Massachusetts.   

As Speaker of the House, Rep. DeLeo is in a strong position to help bills to pass.   It is critical that he step up now to promote all kinds of clean energy so that the coastal co  mmunities he represents can have a fighting chance to continue and prosper.

Judy Gitelson

 Pittsfield

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