Safe to say contentious meetings are a part of the fabric of Charlestown, but rarely has the issue been about trees – if ever.
That said, tensions have been high over the last week or more in regards to a meeting about efforts to save trees within the Bunker Hill Redevelopment plan – a meeting that took place Monday night, March 15. With so much development going on, and marijuana shops also being debated right now in the Town, few would have put money on the fact that trees would have been the hot-button item for the week.
But it certainly was.
However, as the meeting go to a start with host Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), City Councilor Lydia Edwards spoke at-length to set the parameters of a discussion that has spiraled out of control on both sides of the issue – with little desire for anyone to budge in their stances. For residents, they feel like tree advocates aren’t listening to their priorities of having high-quality housing and having relocated families be able to return as soon as possible.
For the tree advocates, the message has been to slow down the process a bit to figure out how to save all the trees and get high-quality housing quickly.
Edwards said it is time to let the youth lead an environmental stewardship effort, and not those in the community who have been taking charge of that discussion so far. She said she would like a tree census conducted by the youth at the development, funded by the developer.
“I want the youth to speak for the trees,” she said. “I want this led by them because they will inherit our decisions about the environment and housing. We need to think about those who took a knee and relocated early so they can come back…There needs to be a youth-led environmental movement here. So much has already happened with that movement at the Peace Park. Unfortunately, those trees there were cut down, but it is an example of the stewardship…I want to see environmental stewardship and environmental leadership going from the development to the community. To date, so much of this conversation has come from the community to the development…We have ignored and not amplified that voice.”
She also said any talk of delaying and not going forward due to saving all of the trees will not be entertained by her over the voices of residents.
“As a City Councilor, I am not inclined to continue a conversation with you,” she said. “This isn’t a time to talk about what you want or don’t want for another person’s life.”
Charlestown Resident Alliance (CRA) President Nancy Martinez addressed the meeting in Spanish, and it was translated later. She re-iterated that the residents have been at the table all along, and that tree activists in the greater community don’t have their best intentions in mind.
“These activists do not speak for us, the residents, and have not asked us about our priorities and we do not need to be lectured on environmental injustice because we’ve lived with that every day,” she said. “While our voices may have not been the loudest, it’s time for this community to listen to us.”
The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) issued a statement after the meeting that said they fully support Councilor Edwards’s proposal for the youth-led environmental justice project for the entire Charlestown neighborhood.
“The BHA is fully supportive of Councillor Edward’s idea for a youth led tree inventory and neighborhood wide environmental justice project,” read a statement from BHA spokesperson Lydia Agro. “This is a perfect use of some of the $2.5 million in community benefits the developer has committed to the project and would benefit the entire Charlestown community. I commend the Turn It Around youth from Bunker Hill for speaking their truth and know they would do an excellent job on this type of community-wide effort.”
But that was far from what took place in the bulk of the meeting.
Developer Leggat McCall dove into great detail about their plans, while tree activists pleaded their case to get more action in saving more of the existing trees and planting more mature trees. Finally, many residents of the development and those in the community who support them postulated that the tree advocacy was really just an effort to delay their housing and potentially boot the public housing out of the neighborhood.
Addie Grady, of Leggat McCall, said there are 340 trees on site, and 98 are in poor condition and need to be removed. Another 153 trees are viable, but have to be removed to accommodate buildings, while another 89 have been preserved by adjustments in the plans – something that wasn’t the case prior to the tree advocacy that started in 2020. She also added that it is impossible to know how the designs will unfold in future phases, and more trees in those phases some 10 years down the road could be saved. She also added that one-third of the existing trees in Phase 1 will be preserved. She also added that more than 500 new trees of varying sizes will be planted throughout the project, and many in Phase 1 would be full-grown by the time the project concludes its final phases.
She pledged to do a tree audit and report before and after each phase of the project going forward.
“It’s just not possible to thread building designs through the existing trees,” she said. “We can make adjustments and we have and will…The design process is not advanced far enough on future phases to understand what we can actually save.”
She added that in December they had identified 81 trees that could be saved, and by February that climbed to 89.
Tree advocate Diane Valle said the community at large has not been heard on the entire development, and spoke about the trees, about open dumpsters, about the history of the unit counts and also about an alternate plan she helped create that would have relocated units to four other sites in Charlestown.
“The community at large has not been at the table and it has been frustrating because we have not been able to have our voices heard,” she said.
“The caliper of the trees does not reflect the expanse of the canopy,” she continued. “The canopy protects the residents who will have lower asthma (rates), it protects the residents from the Tobin Bridge and the Diversified Auto…I don’t want anyone to be confused that if you think you’re going to get another tree, that will replace these mature trees. The canopy is what is the most important.”
Grady responded to the comment, and said Valle and some other long-time critics of the project might just be using trees as a way to stall the development.
“We’re here to improve what we can do to preserve the number of trees because it has benefits, but I think we need to be realistic about what those benefits truly are,” she said. “At the end of the day, I think there are concerns about the project as a whole that are not about trees, but that trees are a current method for objecting to the project…We have done everything we can to be as open as we can. Our answers are not always what people want to hear, but we are listening.”
Tree advocate Johanna Hynes said she first heard that all the trees would be removed in early 2020, and that’s when she decided to get involved in trying to slow down the development in order to save the trees. She said that statements about having to move forward with the current plan and not saving all the trees, or just not building the housing, is not fair.
She suggested using mitigation for reparation payments to residents of Bunker Hill who have suffered under poor housing conditions.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if not for the developer’s refusal to accept responsibility for its own miscalculation of profit. They knew the trees were there and hoped no one would notice when they were gone. They didn’t want to cover the cost necessary to build around them. They cheated and they got caught and now we’re here.”
Additionally, David Meshoullam, of Speak for the Trees, said the removal of the canopy is unconscionable.
“Charlestown has one of the smallest percentage of tree canopy in the city, around 10 percent,” he said. “When these trees are gone, you will have removed about one-tenth of that canopy, down to 9 percent. That’s unconscionable. Comparing dbH to dbH is not a way to talk about the urban canopy. Five, five-inch trees does not equal a 25-inch tree. You need to really think about what it is to re-forest Charlestown.”
Yet, the voices of residents – many of whom are about to be moved to other sites for phase one – were in the room on Monday. Mostly, they felt the tree advocates were pushing a plan that would push them out.
“I’m a resident of the development and a Turn It Around member and I feel like the people that don’t live in the development don’t really have anything to say in this matter because it’s not really affecting them in any personal way it is to us residents,” said resident Khalid Ali. “To come back to the trees, I feel like 10 years is long enough to have those trees mature to a good point to when we come back home to Charlestown we can enjoy the luxury of the trees. If there’s not any problems with money or a development problem, I feel like we have the say to continue the project as planned and not worry about what’s going on that has nothing to do with the actual project.”
That sentiment to move forward was shared by several other residents, and even a man from Jamaica Plain who had signed the ‘Save the Tree’ petition without knowing that it was potentially stopping an affordable housing project.
There were, of course, many other voices on either side of the matter that spoke in the 150-minute meeting focused on trees.
The next action on the Bunker Hill development will be a design meeting of the Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC) on April 6 – where they will continue their discussion on the overall design of Phase 1. That body, of course, was the one that originally asked for a tree-focused meeting about the proposal.