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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Disappointing Development Debate

Dennis Fox

March 25 , 2004

Three weeks ago, Town Meeting debated whether to change the zoning rules at 2 Brookline Place to allow more extensive commercial development. The long, strained meeting left some proponents scrambling to resurrect the rejected project and some opponents defending themselves against charges of dishonest obstructionism. Instead of bickering, Town Meeting Members should figure out how to hold more productive discussions.

Last month I gave lukewarm support to the zoning proposal, which would have let Winn Construction build a building higher and more dense than neighboring offices. Other issues -- traffic and worries about a proposed medical lab's safety -- bothered me less given the project's Route 9 business location, increased open space, and likely contribution to nearby Brookline Village's moribund street life. That last factor was key to overcoming my initial aversion to the supersized plan.

Project opponent John Bassett later told me he had just completed drawings demonstrating the falsity of a key developer argument. Winn's Roger Cassin argued that, because an economically viable building could not be built at the 100-foot limit current zoning permits, moving ahead required 125 feet. According to Bassett's drawings, though, a re-configured 100-foot building would provide the same usable square footage, without reducing open space or other necessities. Telling Bassett that proving his claim at Town Meeting would take more than his word for it, I wished him luck.

Watching the meeting proved a little unnerving. Town Selectmen and other honchos who seem to support every project, good or bad, pushed the zoning change hard. Bassett and other activists with whom I ordinarily agree blasted it. I hoped they'd resolve loose ends.

What happened instead, though, could hardly be called deliberation. Bassett presented his drawings, for example, but project proponents ignored them until much later, when one Town Meeting Member asked about them during final questioning. The developer's answer -- Bassett didn't account for sufficient open space, street set-backs, and the like -- should have come much sooner, along with a direct interchange between the competing sides and Bassett's response. Simply exchanging positions and accusations wasn't useful.

A second example: Opponents distributed drawings comparing the developer's depiction of the project viewed from the Brookline Village subway station (showing open space, trees, and a reasonably sized building) and what they said was a more accurate view drawn to scale, showing an overpowering treeless mass. Proponents ignored this comparison, too, until a later questioner finally asked about it. The developer's response -- the second vantage point was not from the station but from down the street -- accompanied his acknowledgment that the reassuring original drawing was a wide-angle view, making the building seem less imposing. However, there was no follow-up from project opponents, no Moderator effort to resolve the inconsistencies, and no request that Cassin provide a normal-angle drawing viewed from the station.

By inhibiting sustained give-and-take, Town Meeting's formulaic routines sometimes leave crucial points hanging. This time, lingering uncertainty helped opponents prevent the two-thirds vote needed for approval. For future meetings, Town Meeting Members should revise their procedures to better reconcile differing views of disputed facts.

Paradoxically, a second reason for the zoning change's failure was the Board of Selectmen's persistent pressure to support it. Lobbying town boards and committees and Town Meeting Members might have worked if so many residents didn't mistrust the Selectmen's indiscriminate pro-construction stance. Coddling every big developer regardless of project merit makes it risky to believe assurances that any one proposal is better than the rest.

Making matters even worse for next time, in the aftermath of their loss four of the five Selectmen -- all but Gil Hoy -- voted not to reappoint project opponent Mary Dewart to the Park and Recreation Commission. Playing hardball does more to harden battle lines than soften antagonism.

One final related gripe: Yes, Brookline can always use the tax money new development would generate. But having the School Committee support this controversial project on the simplistic grounds that town schools need more funds made everyone look bad except committee member Ira Chan, who noted his committee's lack of zoning expertise. It was good to see him point out the obvious.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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