On the Constitution Inn and the BPDA
Dear Editor, Mayor Wu, BPDA, and City representatives,
On December 14, the BPDA board voted on several upcoming developments. Charlestown had two agenda items, both pertaining to the Constitution Inn. It took less than ten minutes to approve the lease assignment to the proponents of the Independence; the Saint Francis House and the Planning Office of Urban Affairs. In an equally rapid manner, a unanimous vote extended the power of the BPDA Director to alter or waive lease terms at his sole discretion.
On December 5, four Charlestown neighbors participated in a half-hour zoom call with BPDA’s Sarah Black, Senior Project Manager, and Jason Ruggiero, Community Engagement Manager. While we appreciated their candor; it was apparent that Mayor Wu’s campaign promises to reinvent the BPDA have yet to be realized. The principal at play is not just local participation in neighborhood development, but real influence—as promised in the BPDA mission statement.
The BPDA’s mission “in partnership with communities . . . is . . . to plan Boston’s future while respecting its’ past.” This is impossible given the current operating style. Regarding the overwhelming (75%) neighborhood opposition to the Constitution Inn proposal, Sarah Black stated that while they read submitted comments, they did not, summarize, or analyze neighborhood feedback. It is no surprise that the BPDA comes under fire for being beholden to developers at the expense of community concerns. These must be documented as part of the review.
Article 80— from 1996’s competent Menino administration—was recently amended to allow the BPDA to waive requirements of Large Project Review for “certain proposed projects to rehabilitate or construct Affordable Housing units if the Authority has determined that such waiver will increase the availability or quality of Affordable Housing in the City and that such Proposed Project will not generate… significant adverse impacts….” While Mayor Wu’s action is well-intended, the lack of an improved Article 80 presents endless opportunities for negative consequences
Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is distinctly different from “affordable housing”. The conversion of the Constitution Inn requires a change of use from a moderately priced hotel with low occupancy—averaging under 50%– to affordable and permanent supportive housing (PSH) with up to 160 residents combined. PSH, as defined by the tenets of “Housing First” combines housing formerly homeless people with complex disabilities–like substance use and mental health disorders—with optional services. PSH residents can use drugs while not being subject to mandatory eviction. The Independence is a different model than West End Place, a POUA co-op community which opened in 1997. The conversion of the Constitution Inn is not a simple retrofit. Instead, it has the potential for– as Article 80 defines it– “impacts on the public realm.” These impacts would diminish if sobriety and treatment were required.
Our first reaction to Mayor Wu’s executive order was to identify our BPDA neighborhood advocate. None exists. The BPDA Ombudsman, represents the developers after projects are approved in order to hasten the project’s completion. So the title of BPDA Ombudsman, which by definition is an investigator/ public advocate, is a misnomer. When asked who represents citizens in the development process, Jason referred us to the Mayor’s Neighborhood Office of Community Services, (Sean Breen is Charlestown’s liaison) and then to our elected officials. The BPDA reports to Mayor Wu, and regardless of vocal neighborhood input, the agency has voted to fast-track the Independence. Sarah and Jason stated that since the Constitution Inn exists now, mitigation studies are not necessary. We disagree.
We applaud Councilor Coletta for her comments at the BPDA Board meeting. She rightfully stated that there is a lack of trust in the proponents by the community, and that the proponents are accountable to Charlestown. Her urgent call for an independent community oversight committee with an enforcement mechanism, is exactly what should have happened already as an IAG.
BPDA representatives could not remember any large project where the Article 80 process was truncated. Nor could they recall ONE large project that the BPDA had not approved. And, they were unaware if they could disclose sources of private funds for the Independence project. Despite follow up emails, this information has yet to be provided.
The IAG, as employed in other projects—like 140 Clarendon– is a robust committee of neighborhood experts, businesses and abutters. In the case of 140 Clarendon, the IAG generated valuable input, resulting a safer, greener, project. Significantly, in this Pine Street Inn property, illegal drug use is not allowed and professional 24/7 security (not concierge/security) will be employed. Both components are lacking in the Independence project.
We can all recall strategies that were fast-tracked and failed because of that haste. Even though the Independence proposal has been expedited, Charlestown requires a contract with the proponents and an improved Article 80 process. We support Councilor Coletta’s call to codify a community oversight board. Building trust is critical, and holding the proponents accountable to our neighborhood is a first step.
We are not affiliated with any entity that benefits financially from the Constitution Inn project outcome.