Something about the general community project review meeting on the Bunker Hill Redevelopment seemed all too familiar to many at the Oct. 21 online gathering.
In fact, the familiarity was that the same large, expansive barrier the project hit years ago when it was paused, a moratorium was placed upon it, and eventually it unraveled into nothing, had become visible again.
The revival of that old project – now brought by Leggat McCall and Corcoran Companies – is at that same precipice that no one on either side of the argument wanted to approach again, but somehow the community is once again there staring over the edge.
Some say it’s going too fast, it’s too dense and it’s too segregated.
Others said to pull the trigger, work out the differences later in the process, and don’t lose a chance for public housing residents to improve their deteriorating living situations.
To be fair to all sides, all concerns are valid as the project is a massive fork in the road for the Town – a development that will shape an entire quadrant of the neighborhood for a generation, and bring other smaller effects upon the rest of the neighborhood for even longer. The project will have 2,699 units in total over 16 new buildings on a 13-block area – with 1,010 of those units being new replacements of the existing public housing using a Section 8 voucher-based system. There is more than 70,000 sq. ft. of retail planned, and almost seven acres of landscaped open or green space. The plan calls for 1,379 off-street parking spaces available for a fee, another 482 on-street parking spaces and potentially 244 spaces located on state land under the Mystic/Tobin Bridge. It is about a 10-year, phased build out.
Getting It Right, Getting It Now
Getting it right is essential, and more than a small few believe the new development team hasn’t crossed over into acceptable territory. Many of those folks don’t live in the public housing units, though, which have deteriorated into very poor living conditions for elderly, children and families. Those public housing folks, and those who feel the project can be molded in time, feel the keen pinch of “now or never” – understanding a second failed attempt might be the last attempt.
“Our housing is in serious distress,” said Charlestown Resident Alliance (CRA) President Nancy Martinez. “One thing that is very urgent for our residents is for this project to be moved forward. Our residents, especially our children and our elderly and our disabled, need and deserve quality housing in the neighborhood we all love and are so proud of.”
But there are many – most who don’t reside in the development – who feel like the development team is selling the residents short as time runs out – particularly when it comes to including potentially-segregating, all-affordable buildings in what is to be a mixed-income development.
“I’m really concerned that you are not delivering mixed income when that is the designation,” wrote resident Don Straus. “This is a real problem – the community shouldn’t be designing for segregation. It has been proven not to work for communities like Charlestown…The community rejects segregated housing for deeply-affordable residents who include children, elderly and disabled. The promise is to have mixed (buildings), but this is not mixed.”
Said Impact Advisory Group (IAG) member Joanne Massaro, “The project before us is not all it could or should be. Beyond the all affordable buildings, there are other issues that need attention and further work. Questioning and challenging the developers to do what’s best for the community is not stalling. It’s part of the process and it’s our civic responsibility.”
Added Charlestown Neighborhood Council member Mary Boucher, who lives across the street in CharlesNewtown, “I am vehemently opposed to five buildings that are 100 percent deeply affordable, especially when you plan to park four of the five along Medford Street across from another deeply affordable development.”
Yet, for others that don’t live in the development, but have followed the process for years, the time is now to go forward with Phase 1 and try to work out the details and the larger obstacles within the process. The sense of urgency is to not lose the chance to get started, and put the heat on to change or adapt the project once it gets the go-ahead. Many noted this is only an approval for two buildings, not the entire 13-block build-out.
“Enough is enough,” said Kim Mahoney, past president of the Bunker Hill Associates. “This has been being talked about for years, and it’s time to pull the trigger. BHA residents have been waiting a long time for quality living conditions. Most comments I am seeing are from residents outside of the BHA who want to see delays. I highly encourage these individuals to walk through the BHA and stroll through some of the hallways. In fact, spend a weekend in one of the apartments. It is absolutely outrageous to me that we would delay this any longer. Let’s consider the human beings living there.”
Michael Parker, a member of the IAG as well, said he felt like it would be appropriate to move ahead with Phase 1, noting that he had clients in the development as far back as the 1990s, and their living conditions then were unacceptable.
“Democracy is mess,” he said. “I’m confident we can help build more housing services and operate space to provide quality housing for our neighbors. I know there are concerns about the all-affordable buildings, but lets’ get moving on this and we can work that out as we go.”
Resident Brian Callahan said moving forward with Phase 1 is about thinking of children sleeping in sub-standard conditions every night, and how they have waited for so long with the hopes that they could have a better place to live. Dashing those hopes, he said, would not be the way of the Charlestown community.
“I would have to say we need to move forward because there are families in our community that need our help,” he said. “There are children and working moms and dads that are sleeping in the projects tonight in substandard housing…I know everyone has concerns. I don’t like cars or traffic either. There are a lot of things about urban living I find annoying and would like to be rid of, but these families need our help. The longer we delay this, the longer the children will have to sleep in poorly ventilated apartments…In the end, we have to ask what will we have done to preserve the Charlestown legacy of working together and helping each other.”
Right now, the development team is only looking to move forward on Phase 1 of the project, which includes two buildings on the Bridge side by and behind the Kennedy Center. One of those buildings is an all-affordable building – not a mixed-income building as the development has been dubbed. That building goes along Medford and Tufts Street and is four stories on the Medford side and six stories on the Tufts side, a design element that brings the height to the center of the project in all phases. The second is a mixed-income building is nine stories at the corner near the Kennedy Center, and goes back from there. Right now, that piece of the development is the only thing being reviewed, though Phase 1A isn’t far behind and will be reviewed separately. At this point, the first all-affordable building is the only certainty, and most have said they understand the line of thinking presented by Boston Housing Authority Director Kate Bennett in making that one all-affordable.
At the meeting, she said that was to prevent large numbers of families currently in the development from having to be displaced to other parts of the city.
“We believe we can accomplish mostly one-way moves into new housing,” she said of that plan.
But what comes beyond that is a bigger issue. Some have cited plans for future phases that show four more all-affordable buildings, seemingly housing a majority of the public housing residents.
That’s an issue Adelaide Grady, executive director of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment, has explained as a financial problem. She said financing isn’t out there to allow for every building to be mixed-income without increasing the density substantially.
Bennett echoed that, noting to get all mixed-income buildings, it would require putting in more than 4,000 total units.
That matter was to be discussed in detail at an IAG meeting on Oct. 28, which came beyond newspaper deadlines.
Beyond the affordable concerns are those of removing existing trees, a dislike with the architecture that appears more modern and doesn’t match the historic character of Charlestown – along with the general concerns about height and how the buildings will look coming over the Bridge.
A Rally Call for Unity
In the end, it was State Rep. Dan Ryan that gave the rallying cry for unity, for moving forward, and a history lesson into why the development is where it is right now.
He said many years ago when federal HOPE VI funding became available in the 1990s for public housing and developments across the city – such as in Mission Hill, Roxbury and East Boston – got re-done, Charlestown couldn’t get it together. The political will wasn’t there and no one could agree. So, nothing got built and conditions continued to decline.
“I watched as other communities that had two or three city councilors living there, a Congressman living there, rolled out redevelopments,” he said, noting he worked for former Congressman Mike Capuano at the time. “They got the money that should have been Charlestown’s money. It’s time to take that back. It’s our turn now.”
He said it’s time for the community to finally come together to address the substandard housing, alleviate concerns, and move forward.
“There are people in substandard housing living in our Town and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “I have a lot of concerns about this project, sure…If we can stick together as a community to get a moratorium on this like we did, and which I didn’t support, we can stick together as a community to tell the developer what we want. It is time for us as a community to come together and get housing for our neighbors that they deserve.”
The comment period, which has been open since February, does close on Monday, Nov. 2, and Project Manager Raul Duverge didn’t indicate there was much of an appetite to extend it – as it has been extended four times previously, he said.