Looking for Balance: Residential Versus Commercial Zoning a Topic at Eight Streets

Tuesday night, neighbors engaged in a debate about the zoning of a Shawmut Ave. property.

Balancing business and residential occupancy is at the root of many issues concerning the South End these days, particularly in an economy that impacts both retail and real estate markets.

It seems plausible that, at a certain point, long-term retail vacancies should be grounds for residential conversion and vice-versa. But there’s no firm set of rules giving property owners definite criteria with which to determine eligibility. Instead, they must confer with related neighborhood associations looking for gestures of support and visit the Landmark District Commission for a design proposal.

This gets tricky when a full-on property renovation is at stake.

“Before we start spending money on an architect to draw up the plans, we’re seeking permission to remove the commercial space on the ground level,” said Dave Watson, addressing the Eight Streets group during a Tuesday night meeting.

Along with development partner Sean Kennedy, Watson has entered into a purchase agreement with the owner of 251 Shawmut, located on the corner of Milford Street directly opposite . The agreement extends to October 31, 2011, although the pair clarified that the building’s sale isn’t contingent on the first floor conversion.

Neighborhors in attendance confirmed the building's deteroirating state, saying weather and shoddy "band-aid" fix-it jobs have left the corner structure uninhabitable. One neighbor asserted that the buiding should have been shut down long ago by the Board of Health.

But residents also expressed concern about the potential switch from commercial to residential zoning, which could dull the business vibe alive on that strip of Shawmut, which is home to  and .

“The sight of residences on the first floor looks dead to me,” said resident Gail Suyemoto. “The impact to street life is potentially negative…the shut blinds just look wrong. Shawmut is thriving right now and it’d be nice to stretch it out some.”

At the same time, neighbors are wary of what sort of business may move in if the space remains commercial. Suyemoto stated that another food establishment would just bring more traffic and double parking to the area. In the case of Waltham Tavern, she noted, converting to residential space resulted in a positive outcome for neighbors. But at the same time, keeping a commercial spot where now exists improved upon the prior circumstance (the space was occupied by a gentleman’s club).

In response, another Eight Streets member cautioned that there are only so many restrictions that can be fairly placed on the outcome.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he said. “It’ll either be zoned commercially or not, and in the former case you may end up with an increase in traffic and everything else that comes with. You need to accept that if it remains a business it still might not work out the way you want.”

A vote will be taken in the fall.


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