Feeling ignored, residents in West Highland have teamed up with No High Rises in West Highland to plan a rally tonight in Highland Square voicing their opposition to a trio of four- or five-story apartment buildings RedPeak Properties plans to build just north of 32nd Avenue and Lowell Boulevard. Neighbors will have picketers and a sign contest to protest what they believe is an inappropriate development for the historic area.
"This emanated from people in the community, not from No High Rises," says Bill Menezes, a member of No High Rises, a grassroots group that has been attempting to stop or alter this development for several months. "People came to the last No High Rises meeting and said, 'There needs to be a public showing of what we want here versus what we're getting from Susan Shepherd, the city and RedPeak.'"
The rally was initiated by a neighbor who attended a No High Rises meeting and then provided the promotional materials. No High Rises has helped with some of the organization.
Shepherd, city councilwoman for the district where RedPeak plans its buildings, released a letter nearly two weeks ago stating she would not pursue legislative action to stop, alter or slow the development.
"I spoke to my colleagues -- several of my colleagues on three different occasions trying to see if there was something I could get them to bite on, and I could not get any traction," Shepherd notes. "There were only two people who gave me a 'maybe' on a down-zoning, and everyone else either said, 'No,' or 'Probably not.'
"I asked them about a down-zoning and I asked them about two different kinds of moratoriums and that was the pretty consistent response I got -- that they wouldn't vote for it."
This left many neighbors feeling Shepherd was siding with the developer and not promoting the wishes of the people she represents. The West Highland Neighborhood Association passed a motion at a February 7 meeting urging Shepherd to pursue a re-zoning. Shepherd acknowledged that about a third of the feedback she has received since releasing the letter has been supportive of her decision to not pursue legislative action. She says the rest of the feedback has ranged from disappointment to threats of a recall.
But Shepherd stands behind her decision because she believes RedPeak has made many concessions to the neighborhood in terms of building smaller, less dense apartment buildings and she doesn't want to compromise those concessions by further agitating the company.
"I think it would be foolish to assume that we could potentially continue to antagonize them and that they aren't just going to walk away from the table at some point," she says. "I think for the greater community, for the whole district, it would be terrible if they decided to just say, 'We're sick of being antagonized and everything we've negotiated up to date is off the table and we're going to build this thing the way we really wanted to build it.'"
Menezes and other members of the No High Rises group have questioned whether changes RedPeak has made to its plans are actually concessions or just business decisions it believes will make the development more profitable. Shepherd believes that regardless of RedPeak's motivation, the developer has made an attempt to meet the neighborhood in the middle.
"I think the equations are pretty simple," she says. "They have full entitlement to build larger buildings, for which they can charge premium rent, period. They are reducing those buildings significantly."
Aside from the merit of these concessions, Shepherd simply felt a re-zoning would fail to pass a vote in City Council. And she disagrees with the sentiment that it is not her job to assess the potential success of a re-zoning, but to move forward with the wishes of the people she has been elected to represent.
"I have to make the decisions that are best for the district at large, for the whole district, and not just for a group of people who are upset with the particular zoning on a particular group of parcels," says Shepherd. "So number one, I thought it was un-wise to jeopardize what we'd already gained. Number two, these are very strict budget times. We have very limited resources in terms of staffing and capacity, not only in my office, but in all the offices across the city. It just doesn't make sense to take all of the resources and the time to put something forward that you know has no chance of passing."
Despite the seeming finality of Shepherd's letter, neighbors want to send the message that this issue is not dead.
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"From my perspective, as a neighbor who will be there, I want the city and I want Susan Shepherd to see that the community is not going to take the back of the hand anymore in terms of what's going to happen with this thing," he says. "The city's attitude and Susan Shepherd's attitude seems to be, 'Nothing can be done. RedPeak has thrown you a couple of crumbs,' which they really haven't, 'And that's all I can do.'"
Menezes says No High Rises has legal and financial avenues available to stop or alter the development, but wouldn't elaborate. Another group filed an application for historical designation status for the Highland Church on Lowell, which will be eliminated for construction, but Laura Goode, founder of No High Rises, says the application has been denied. The historical designation status would have prevented the church from being torn down to make space for apartment buildings.
"I hope the rally will show our elected officials and the public that this is a true grassroots effort and it is a very legitimate cause," Goode says. "I really want our elected officials and public to see the sincerity and legitimacy of the issue."
More from our Follow That Story archive: "RedPeak releases Highland building renderings, woman tells her side of council member spat."