By Michael Coughlin Jr.
With the help of Charlestown residents, the Neighborhood Voice Alliance (NVA), a local civic group, is leading the charge in opposition to the Independence, a permanent supportive and affordable housing project from the Planning Office for Urban Affairs (POUA) and St. Francis House at the site of the old Constitution Inn.
During a meeting last month, the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s (BPDA) Board approved the project that contains 100 affordable rental units — 48 of which are permanent supportive housing (PSH) units — 32 for women and 16 for veterans.
A BPDA Memorandum describes the PSH model, saying it “combines providing deeply affordable, permanent, leased housing for individuals experiencing homelessness with tailored individualized services to assist people with disabilities to live successfully in the community long term.”
It should be noted that those in the PSH units will be subject to CORI and SORI checks in-person interviews and will need to be “certified persons on the City’s Coordinated Entry System for housing or the Veterans Administration list for housing,” according to a “Response to Public Comments” document on the project’s webpage on the BPDA’s website.
Moreover, regarding other aspects of the project, the staffing is said to “exceed best practice standards,” according to Bill Grogan, the President of POUA. It will also include a “robust, belt-and-suspenders approach to the care, comfort and safety of our residents, staff and larger community,” with KROLL Security according to the aforementioned “Response to Public Comments” document.
Additionally, 24/7 private concierge-style security and on-site wellness staff are slated for the project.
With all this being said, this project has been frustrating for many Charlestown residents who have opposed it since the proponents first proposed it in 2022.
Specifically, residents have voiced concerns about safety, the merits of the PSH model, and the idea that the project would work, considering aspects such as neighborhood services needed to fully support the individuals who might live in the PSH units and much more.
“There’s really a mountain of evidence that shows that permanent supportive housing has failed in California all up and down the West Coast basically,” said Mark Gallagher, a Member of Charlestown Voice, a group that has dedicated a website — https://charlestownvoice.com/ to the project.
“If you look at the research, you can go to https://charlestownvoice.com/ look at the research there that provides information on permanent supportive housing; you can see that there’s not a lot of success, if any, over a long-term period for this type of project,” said Bob O’Leary, another Member of Charlestown Voice.
Rosemary Macero, an NVA Board Member, questioned the internal security plan for the project and the safety of folks, some of whom might have children who could live in the development, whether it be those in the PSH units or the remaining 52 units not set aside for PSH.
Not only have the merits of the project been challenged by its opponents, but an equally frustrating aspect for residents has been the process the project went through to get its approval last month.
Specifically, for a substantial period, folks were calling for in-person meetings, writing letters with concerns, and more. However, these calls — according to residents — fell on deaf ears. “We tried all the right channels that we thought were appropriate. We tried reaching out to our representatives, our politicians; we even reached out to BPDA — the voices went unheard,” said Nancy Mara-Aldrich, an NVA Board Member.
One point of contention in the process was the decision to waive the creation of an impact advisory group (IAG) despite urges from residents and elected officials such as City Councilors Gabriela Coletta and Erin Murphy to have a full project review process.
Last month, a BPDA spokesperson told the Patriot-Bridge that an IAG was waived by the agency and the Mayor’s Office to “align with the Mayor’s Executive Order related to Speeding the Production of Affordable Housing.”
The spokesperson also indicated that an IAG was waived “because IAGs are responsible for determining necessary mitigation and community benefits, which are not relevant in this project.”
Adding, that “Constitution Inn is an interior retrofit to accommodate a change of use from hotel to housing units, so the project would not generate significant impacts to the built environment, wind, shadow or traffic, and therefore would not require mitigation, and the community benefit from the project is predetermined as affordable housing.”
The IAG issue and the project review process as a whole have left residents, such as Mara-Aldrich and Macero, frustrated.
Mara-Aldrich was very critical of the BPDA, stating that the agency “has this environment of basically inequality.”
“There is no oversight of the BPDA to ensure that voices — local resident voices — are heard,” she added.
Macero was equally critical of the agency, saying, “The BPDA is basically an owner and disowner, and they have these things, and they do exactly what they please… we’re just getting stuff shoved down our throat with no regard for our quality of life.”
“It is just infuriating for us to have no voice in the process,” she also said.
The process, which has left residents fed up, and the recent approval of the project has led to what an email from the NVA to its donors calls “initial legal action signaling further proceedings.”
With the help of donations from the community, the NVA has retained the law firm Mirrione, Shaughnessy & Uitti, LLC, to help fight the project.
Mirrione, Shaughnessy & Uitti, LLC has sent a letter to the BPDA’s Director Arthur Jemison, which, according to the document, serves as “a formal complaint under G.L. c. 30A, § 23(b).”
The “formal complaint” against the BPDA is for “continued violations of the Open Meeting Law, G.L. c. 30A, §§ 18-25, at the BPDA’s public meetings held via Zoom on October 19, 2023, and December 14, 2023,” according to the letter.
The letter alleges that the BPDA “conducted the October 19th Meeting via Zoom in a manner such that only the panelists presenting the Project were shown on screen.”
It also alleges that the agency “hand-selected certain public participants (whom only the BPDA could see) to speak publicly on the Zoom platform and did not require those participants to identify themselves by name or address prior to speaking.”
The allegations mentioned above were actually concerns that were raised the day prior in an October 18th letter sent from a member of Mirrione, Shaughnessy & Uitti, LLC to Sarah Black, a Senior Project Manager with the BPDA, according to the “formal complaint.”
“Despite our clients’ concerns and requests in the October 18th Letter, the BPDA failed and refused to comply with the Open Meeting Law at the so-called “public meeting” that the BPDA held via Zoom on October 19, 2023,” reads the letter.
Regarding the December 14th meeting — the meeting where the BPDA Board approved the project — the letter alleges that the agency “failed to comply with the public notice provisions in advance of the December 14th Meeting.”
The letter also alleges that the agency “took the Project out of order from its place on the agenda, and conducted the meeting in such a manner that there was no deliberation by the BPDA, clearly indicating that a decision had been made outside of the public meeting process, in violation of the Open Meeting Law.”
Specifically, the letter claims that the public notice for the Board meeting posted on the BPDA website on December 12th said the public could “participate” in the meeting before it was allegedly changed the next day to say the public could “attend” the meeting.
The letter states, “The December 13, 2023, public notice was not provided within at least forty-eight (48) hours of the December 14th Meeting as required under the Open Meeting Law.”
“The public, including my clients, had been led to believe that the public would be able to participate in the December 14th Meeting, relying on the December 12, 2023, public notice of the BPDA’s agenda.”
It should be noted that during the December 14th Board meeting, the public was not invited to provide testimony on the project. However, Coletta was able to give testimony for her constituents.
Coletta’s testimony was cited in the letter, describing Charlestown residents’ frustration with the BPDA approval process, the desire for an IAG to be involved in the project review — which did not happen — and more.
The letter also used Coletta’s testimony when she stated that there were residents who felt like the project was “a done deal.”
“Clearly, the BPDA’s December 14th Meeting revealed a merely “ceremonial acceptance” of public commentary and a “perfunctory ratification of secret decisions.” McCrea v. Flaherty, 71 Mass.App.Ct. 637 (2008),” reads the letter.
Lastly, the letter requests that the BPDA “set aside all actions” from the October and December meetings and “cure” the alleged Open Meeting Law violations through other requests.
Those requests are to have a newly scheduled public meeting where “the BPDA may take independent deliberative action and discuss on the record the public’s numerous objections to the Project” and that the project goes through full Article 80 Large Project Review.
In an email response to a request for comment regarding the situation, the BPDA’s Assistant Director of Communications Brittany Comak wrote, “The agency did not violate the law, as will be explained in greater detail in our formal response.”
Ultimately, it is clear that the community’s fight against the Independence is not only unfinished but has perhaps started a new chapter.
“I can make these arguments left and right, but these are the reasons that people said you know what, we wrote enough letters, we went through this, we’ve done everything by the book. The BPDA didn’t, and it only takes so much to make people say I’ve had enough,” said Gallagher.