What about Us? Bunker Hill Residents Say They’ve Been Lost in the Trees

The old saying goes that one cannot see the forest for all the trees, and in the emerging tree discussion regarding the Bunker Hill Housing Re-Development, current public housing residents say they are the forest, and they’re concerns are being missed by advocates who want to slow down the start of the re-development in favor of saving more existing trees.

The Charlestown Resident Alliance (CRA) Board and its president, Nancy Martinez, said this week that residents from outside the development are controlling the narrative about trees within Bunker Hill, and it’s coming at a cost to the low-income humans that live within that very development.

Mayor Martin Walsh poses with Charlestown Residents Alliance (CRA) officers Phil Wright, President Nancy Martinez, Tina Goodnow and Karla Wert in an April 2019 announcement about Bunker Hill. Martinez and the CRA say this week that their well-being has not been considered in recent discussions about saving trees.

In a word, they feel invisible, or erased, in favor of saving trees.

“What is clear is that the loudest voices in the room have been from people who do not live in the development,” said Martinez this week, on behalf of the Board. “They talk about ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ but have not bothered to ask us about our priorities. We talk to people here every day, and their priority is to get new, healthy homes for their families. That’s what we are working to deliver. We hope this meeting provides the opportunity to build consensus, so that everyone can feel their voices have been heard.”

The criticism comes on the heels of an article in the Boston media this week that leaned heavily, residents said, on the comments of those wanting to save more trees. It also comes a few weeks after Speak for the Trees Director David Meshoulam joined the tree discussion, and like many of the residents making trees a priority, called for a better design of the project that would save more trees.

“Our stand at Speak for the Trees has always been that we care about trees because trees care for us and that by planting and protecting trees we are caring for each other,” he told the Patriot Bridge last month. “I’m not sure what the right balance is in this case, but feel strongly that the current design, as it stands now, is certainly not balanced.

“I understand the perceived conflict here between development and trees,” he continued. “But I think it’s a perceived conflict, not a real one. There are ways to work a design that takes these trees into account.”

That’s a move some residents outside of the development have advocated for, and they have grabbed the ear of at least one Boston Civic Design Commission member who advanced the call for a new development meeting sponsored by the City that would focus only on trees. That online meeting, which Martinez referenced above, is to take place Monday night, March 15, at 6 p.m.

That narrative has grabbed the spotlight in the discussion on the six-year-old Bunker Hill Redevelopment process – a process that has had hundreds of twists and turns and one that was finalized in January with the approval of the project by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and the Zoning Commission. As the conversation has focused on trees within the final design meetings for Phase 1 of the project, the CRA said residents that have already been relocated for Phase 1 are being left out and delays threaten to keep them relocated longer than expected.

“We understand it is hard to see mature trees come down, but we have over 100 residents who have already been displaced in anticipation of demolition and are eagerly waiting to come back to new homes,” said Martinez. “We cannot support any effort, however well-intentioned, that delays their return. The CRA has worked in partnership with the development team to ensure the plan for Phase 1 retains as many trees as possible. We fully support the current design, as well as the overall plan, which will double the number of trees over the next 10 years.”

Lydia Agro, of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), said the CRA and the BHA residents are the largest stakeholders at the moment in the discussion, and they are well-aware of what they’re doing and very informed. She rejected the notion that they have not been informed, or that they don’t know what is best for them.

“Residents (of the development) have been at the table now for years,” she said. “They are intimately familiar with the plans. We are now risking delay because of this…It’s really paramount that housing and housing for our residents takes priority. They have been at the table for four years now, and they’ve participated in every community process and there have been adjustments made because of that community process, but at this time we have a comprehensive plan for the indoor environment and the outdoor environment that’s best for our residents and we need to proceed.”

Some residents, and Agro as well, are also stressing the idea of looking at the environmental aspects of the redevelopment overall – and not just through the lens of losing trees. The tree discussion has largely centered on air quality, and one resident who frequently contributes to the discussion – but did not want to be named – said this week that the new buildings will be much more environmentally friendly and that should also be considered. He said that he thinks it is important to save as many trees as possible, but also to consider that the new buildings will bring about a much healthier environment due to their design, which adheres to the highest environmental standards – known as Passive House.

He said that has not been part of the environmental discussion, as the trees have, but absolutely should be factored into any discussion about the overall air quality.

That was echoed by Addie Grady, executive director of the Bunker Hill Housing Redevelopment, and Senior VP at Leggat McCall Properties. She has long been a staunch advocate of the Passive House concept and was the one that brought it to the table in the early days of the plan. She said the Passive House design will sequester much more greenhouse gas emissions than the existing trees could ever account for.

“We remain committed to an open and transparent dialogue to further our priority goal of thoughtfully developing new affordable and market rate housing on the site,” she said. “As presented and discussed during the IAG and public meeting process, we will preserve and plant as many trees as possible while designing all 15 buildings to Passive House standards. As a result, the annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will be over 1,000 times as much as all of the existing trees on site can sequester annually. This project will be a model for environmentally sustainability.”

Agro also agreed with that point, and said one of the attractive pieces of the redevelopment plan is the developer’s intention to build to a Passive House standard – which will improve indoor air quality and also be more environmentally friendly than the current buildings to the surrounding neighborhood.

“Housing and the indoor environment are going to be much better for our residents,” said Agro. “The new buildings that are built will be more environmentally sound and provide better indoor air quality for residents in that housing. It’s a comprehensive plan that includes a better outdoor environment that includes trees but the plan also includes a much better indoor air quality environment too. At the end of the day there will be 600 trees on the site. The development will take 10 years. It’s long term…It’s not as if all the trees are going to come down immediately.”

That point has yet to be made in any of the public tree discussions so far, but it is likely to take more of the center stage at Monday’s meeting. Likewise, there will be strong arguments from the activists outside the development who continue to believe a better design that saves more existing trees is possible – even if that means some delay were to occur.

The meeting agenda is singular, in that it focuses on providing a comprehensive overview of the existing trees located within the project site and their approach to preservation. The meeting is scheduled to go from 6-8 p.m.

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