Bunker Hill Housing Residents Sound Off at Council Hearing

When Councilor Lydia Edwards started off the hearing on One Charlestown at the Knights of Columbus Father Mahoney Hall last Thursday, March 15, she made one thing crystal clear.

The hearing wasn’t about whether or not the project was going to happen.

“We are going to do this,” she said.

She also clarified that the hearing would not cover what is to come in the future, but rather “specifically about how we got here, why we’re not currently in the middle of development, the process that we have gone through, the lessons that we have learned, and what we as a community can look forward to in terms of process in the future,” she said.

Invited speakers included the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), developer Joe Corcoran, proposed partner Leggat McCall, and the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), which was unable to attend. However, Edwards said that their answers to her pre-planned questions would be made available to the public.

The public was welcome to testify, but Edwards said that because of the specific impact on those who live in the development, Bunker Hill BHA residents were invited to speak first.

Tiara Murphy, president of the Charlestown Resident Alliance (CRA), led off the testimony. She’s been a Charlestown resident for three years, and currently studies early childcare education at Bunker Hill Community College. As a mom, she said she wants the best for her children.

“Our children should not be limited because they live in a development,” she said. “They should be empowered.”

Murphy also brought up the Community Consensus Plan drafted by Sy Mintz and other Charlestown residents.

“I am not sure how consensus was defined, but there can’t be a community consensus plan without the participation of the prime stakeholders, which are the public housing residents whose homes are at stake and whose lives will be deeply impacted,” she said.  “Our voices, the voices of the public housing community, also must be heard, valued, and accepted into any plan before it is characterized as a consensus plan.”

Betty Carrington, the former president of the Charlestown Tenant Task Force, said she’s been living in Charlestown since 1994. She expressed her support for Joe Corcoran.

“I’m happy to be here this evening because this shows me that somebody’s still thinking about us,” she said.

Other residents expressed apprehension for their safety in the development, as well as voicing concerns about accommodating people with disabilities in the new development.

After the BHA residents, BHA Administrator Bill McGonagle read from a written statement that Bunker Hill, built in the late 1930s, is the largest public housing development in New England with 1,100 families and is one of the most diverse census tracks in the city of Boston. He also said that these residents have an average income of $17,000 per year, and the development houses more than 1,000 children and 238 elderly residents.

McGonagle said, “We began this massive undertaking” because the federal government has backed down from providing adequate funds for public housing. He said one of the assets in Boston is that much of the public housing sits on valuable land.

“By adding market-rate housing, and therefore creating a mixed-income community, we might generate enough revenue to support the preservation of the deeply affordable homes,” McGonagle said.

“The one thing that everyone agrees upon here in Charlestown is that the status quo at Bunker Hill is simply not acceptable,” continued McGonagle. “I remain hopeful that we can all find the right balance of density and the right proposal to achieve this goal.”

McGonagle then took questions from Edwards, who asked how much the budget is for the annual upkeep of the Bunker Hill housing development.

The answer, he said, is about $7 million a year with heating and electricity, which is funded through the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“I would suggest that the Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington have been far less than generous and have provided significantly insufficient operational and capital funds for public housing authorities all over the country,” McGonagle said.

McGonagle said that the only way to provide this redevelopment is to go through a private developer.

“I would characterize it as a private-public partnership,” he said. He said the BHA will continue to own the land and it would be leased to the development company for 99 years.

McGonagle said that the BHA found out in late fall of 2017 that Corcoran’s partner, SunCal, had backed out of the deal. Right now, Boston-based Leggat McCall is being considered as the new financial partner, but McGonagle said that the BHA and the CRA will make the final decision.

As for relocation of current residents once construction starts, McGonagle said residents will be offered a Section 8 certificate or placement in another public housing development in the city. He said a project of this size could take four or five phases, and would take 10-12 years from start to finish. Residents will be assisted in the relocation process, said McGonagle, and all move-out and move-in costs will be paid for. In addition, McGonagle said that all current residents will have a legally documented right to return when the project is completed.

Developer Joe Corcoran said in response to negative reactions to the high-rise buildings originally proposed, “I think we’ve made it clear to just about everyone that we have no high-rise buildings in the plan right now.”

Corcoran also said that the project is currently in the midst of an Article 80 large project review. He said that the next step is to prepare a draft project impact report (DPIR), but “the transition of development partners has delayed the preparation of this DPIR,” Corcoran said.

He said if Leggat McCall is approved as a new partner, “we look forward to preparing the DPIR and re-engaging with the CRA and the greater Charlestown community.”

If they are chosen, Corcoran said, it will also allow construction to begin in the fall of 2019.

Corcoran reminded the audience that this was a $1 billion project, and having a financially strong project will attract additional capital. He said that Leggat McCall is “very good” with financial analysis and planning. “I think Leggat McCall is actually a stronger partner than SunCal was, frankly,” Corcoran said.

Since Leggat McCall is being considered as a new partner, co-president Eric Sheffels was invited to make a statement, though he did not take questions.

“This is an extremely complicated project,” said Sheffels. “It needs to balance the needs of many different constituencies. We pride ourselves in undertaking large, complicated urban projects with diverse problems and needs of various constituent players. We share the vision of the original proposal of creating an economically and ethnically diverse community.

“The local experience, the large project experience, our experience with extraordinarily difficult both construction undertakings as well as community involvement we believe qualifies us to become a partner with you in this undertaking,” Sheffels continued.

When the floor was opened to other Charlestown residents, about a dozen went up to testify.

Terry Kennedy, executive director of the Kennedy Center, said, “This project is very important to the Town, to the Kennedy Center.”

He said that the center has been in Charlestown for 54 years and assists people “from infants to seniors.” He was concerned with the fact that in the current proposal, the Kennedy Center would be torn down during phase one. McGonagle said, “We will accommodate the Kennedy Center one way or the other, trust me. We’ll figure it out.”

Mary Boucher, a CharlesNewtown resident and neighborhood councilor, cited the current plan and said, “The Town cannot handle an influx of 7,000-plus residents that would move into 3,200 units,” she said. “We have two bus routes, one pharmacy that sometimes can take up to four hours to fill a prescription, two engines and one ladder company, one ambulance, and a police station that closes at 11 p.m.”

McGonagle reassured those in attendance that “whatever is proposed in the hopefully not-too-distant future will not be anywhere near that number,” he said. “(Having) 3,200 (units) is clearly something that’s not acceptable to this neighborhood.”

Charlestown Neighborhood Council Chair Tom Cunha wants to see some of the new homes be set aside for veterans.

“I’d like to see it in the documents that whatever is an agreed-upon amount, 100 or whatever, be put aside for veterans that have served the country,” he said.

John Tehrani said he bought a one-bedroom condominium on Salem Street in 2015. He’s concerned with the increasingly high real estate prices. He said if he were to buy his home now, he probably couldn’t afford to. “There’s nowhere for people to go to just buy something that’s of a reasonable price,” Tehrani said. “I haven’t lived here for 40 years, maybe I would like to though, so that’s just one thing to keep in mind.”

Don Haska, a Charlestown resident of 39 years, wants the National Parks Historic Battlefield Preservation report to be made available to the public.

“I think the process is flawed; it’s not transparent at all, it hasn’t included Charlestown residents or the Historical Society,” Haska said. “Charlestown is the oldest, oldest community of Massachusetts Bay, it is the beginning of the U.S. Army…men died on this site.”

Councilor Edwards said that there will be a community gathering about the Community Preservation Act (CPA) and money that will be able to be put towards “our very sacred history.”

Jennifer Edouard, a Charlestown resident, mother, and CRA treasurer, thinks the issue of health should have more of a focus as opposed to issues such as density. The condition of the apartments is “literally affecting our health,” she said. “Living in mold or having all these things literally in your environment that is breaking you down day by day, it’s heartbreaking and hopefully we can come to a conclusion and a compromise sooner rather than later because again some of our residents may not have a tomorrow because of their living conditions today.”

Other concerns residents cited included issues with public transportation, how else to obtain funding, and to date, the lack of information regarding the actual plan.

The hearing ended with Joe Corcoran saying that they could get “back on track” in May if Leggat McCall is designated as the new partner.

“It might take us three months to develop the new plan after that,” Corcoran said.

The entire hearing is available for viewing on the Boston City Council YouTube channel.

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