Kennedy Center Calls for Quicker Decision on New Community Center Operator

Leaders of the Kennedy Center and its Board are calling on the development team for the Bunker Hill Redevelopment to make a decision quickly, rather than in a later phase of the development, on who will be the lead operator for the proposed Community Center on the site – and not to leave them out of discussions on the matter either.

Director Thara Fuller and the entire Board of the Kennedy Center expressed concerns this week to the newspaper, and submitted a letter outlining their concerns, about how the Community Center process is going and that they would appreciate a quicker decision to help them continue their mission and COVID-19 operations. She said they want to make it clear that they support the development fully and improving the living conditions of residents – many of whom are their clients – but need some quick assurances on where they stand in the Community Center operations discussion.

“We have been doing this work for 54 years and 90 percent of our clients are residents and we have partnerships all over Charlestown, but somehow we seem to be left out of the process,” said Fuller. “We are providing a lot of services for COVID-19 still. We need these services now. We’re in a pandemic; an emergency situation and people are losing jobs, and children are being left alone at home while parents have to work. We have been serving these families throughout, but that could go away. This pandemic will have ripple effects and these families will continue to need these services and the Kennedy Center needs that assurance that there will be a place for us.”

One of the keys to the situation is the building at 50 Bunker Hill St., owned by the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), has served as the hub for the Kennedy Center social services, while their other building down the street functions as a child care school and is fully enrolled. Unfortunately, the BHA had to ask the Kennedy Center to move out due to COVID-19 restrictions, and this caused them to have to move their operations three times during the pandemic while also feeding, clothing and serving the neighborhood. Right now, they are located above the NEW Charlestown Health Center in a temporary space they lease, and cannot continue doing so forever. That has prompted them to call on the developers to make a decision on the Center much sooner than previously announced, bringing the Kennedy Center to the table and giving them assurances they will have the key role in operating the Center. That will allow them to leverage state resources – such as a $1 million mixed-income childcare grant – that will keep them going until the Center is constructed and available. Without any assurance, the key social service part of their mission might evaporate.

“We stand ready to partner and we would love to be the lead organization at the Community Center,” said Fuller. “We think we have a win-win situation to serve the residents and particularly with the need for childcare.”

Bunker Hill Redevelopment Director Adelaide Grady said the Kennedy Center is invited to the Community Center assessment meetings – which include a triple team of the Charlestown Residents Alliance (CRA), the BHA and Corcoran. They are, and have been, meeting with all providers in Charlestown to create a vision for the entire community at the Center.

“We also intend to maintain the open and ongoing dialogue during the past five years with the Kennedy Center, and all service providers in Charlestown, who provide these necessary services to residents,” said Grady. “Since the Kennedy Center is a primary abutter, we have consistently been meeting with its Executive Director and Board to appropriately address concerns relative to the construction of Phase One. These issues have also been raised and discussed in open public and IAG meetings as part of the Article 80 process. We look forward to our scheduled Community Center Subcommittee meeting with the Kennedy Center next week and remain committed to our planning goals of learning more about all of the service providers in Charlestown as we work toward developing a community center framework by mid-2021.”

Therein lied the difficulty.

While the development team is fighting to get through Phase 1 reviews with the community and the City, a Community Center for the overall development wasn’t expected to be planned out or built until much later in the process and cannot yet be the primary focus. However, the other side of the coin is the Kennedy Center is and has been providing critical services during COVID-19 to the most vulnerable population in the Town. Now, they seemingly have nowhere to base those critical services, in part due to COVID, and in part due to the impending demolition in the future of the BHA building where their social services have been housed for decades.

The two timelines are not meshing, though, as of yet.

“The redevelopment tri-party team of the BHA, CRA and Corcoran shares with the Kennedy Center – and all of Charlestown’s effective service providers – the common priority of improving the lives of the 2,500 people who are in critical need of deeply affordable replacement housing while ensuring essential and creative social programming is uninterrupted, conveniently accessible and enhanced with the creation of a Community Center in a future phase,” said Grady.

However, for the Kennedy Center and its social service arm, the future is now.

“We’re in a bind,” Fuller said. “We’re providing essential services to seniors, young children, food distribution, clothing, the annual toy drive and COVID-19 services. All that is in limbo because we’ve been embedded in that BHA building and had to leave quickly. We quickly got space above the health center, but we can’t afford to keep leasing it. This is a tough situation and we’re still doing COVID-19 programming that people depend on.”

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