Upham's Corner Online

St. Kevin's Developers Get an Earful from Upham's Corner Residents

Posted: January 15, 2011     Nancy J Conrad

Upham's Corner residents attended the first 2012 meeting of the  Upham's Corner Westside Neighborhood Association on January 10 expecting an update from POUA (the Planning Office for Urban Affairs affiliated with the Boston Archdiocese), the developer working on the plans for the St Kevin's property.  The meeting was so advertised.

The project representatives who attended the meeting knew almost nothing about the project.  This was in stark contrast to the last several years of POUA meetings where the same two knowledgeable principals were always in attendance:  Lisa B. Alberghini, President and Molly Ekerdt, Development Project Manager & Policy Coordinator.  St Kevin's Developement Meeting 1/10/12

Judy Beckler, President St. Mary's Women and Infants, took the lead but could not confirm details about the plans because, as she stated several times, she is a partner in the project, not a developer.  David Aiken, introduced as Molly Ekerdt's replacement, said he is still learning about the project and contributed nothing (new) to the conversation. 

At the same time, it wouldn't have mattered if anyone else from POUA had come to the meeting.  There still would not have been any design updates because there aren't any to talk about. The developers have not commissioned any new work on the project, this in the face of repeated promises to address resident concerns about massing, shadow, parking and traffic patterns no later than the fall of 2011. 

All of this is probably related to the fact that they were turned down last fall for state funding.  In December they resubmitted to the Commonwealth for the first round of low income housing tax credits of 2012.

As with meetings in the past, POUA talked about the architects who are (will be) "working on" resident issues.  "Plan updates," they said, "will be presented at a proposed community meeting to be held February 23, 2012 at the Cape Verdean Adult Daycare Center."

Without updates, what could possibly fill an hour and 15 minute discussion that followed? 

Residents were quick to express the same concerns and frustrations that have characterized previous meetings.  On the other hand it gave everyone present a chance to recall their passions, their hopes and visions of what can make a positive difference for the future of Upham's Corner.

In March 2011 the BRA approved the St. Kevin's plan, and when asked why they approved it when neighbors still had significant unresolved issues about its design, the BRA stated:  "The developers are required to resolve all issues."

Yet since March 2011 no progress has been made.  Some meetings have taken place both with abutters and with the Westside Neighborhood organization (UCWNA) but revised plans to address neighbor concerns are not forthcoming.  The promised "fall" update has come and gone with no progress made.

Several residents asked how the plans were tied to the funding.  The stated fear is that the developers will not respond to resident concerns once the funding is in place.  On the other hand, the condition of "no funding" certainly isn't acting as an incentive either.

The best answer that Judy Beckler gave was this:  "Our plans are not set in stone until the final final."  Whatever that means.

The topic of transportation planning was huge.  "A lot of our concerns have to do with parking."

Judy replied:  "Cars are something we are going to absolutely look into and pursue." 

Residents listening to this expressed frustration over project plans that should have been resolved a long time ago - and well before the BRA voted to accept this project.  Why parking and traffic issues have not been resolved is a mystery.

Judy tried to suggest that her clients (St. Mary's women and infants) - all 77 families - don't own cars.  For her, this is proof that limiting the number of parking spaces on the project would not cause a spillover of cars parking on Virginia Street.  For the residents this was meaningless proof.  As one of them said: "A lot of poor people own cars.  A car is one of the last things you give up."

Another resident pointed out that on the adjacent, very narrow streets of Arion and Davern, there aren't enough parking spaces as it is now for the residents who live there.  As a consequence, they are parking their cars on Virginia Street.  A St. Kevin's housing development will only make the problem worse.

They then discussed the famous "curb cut" idea suggested by one of the residents at a prior developer meeting.  It is a truly brilliant idea ( or so say the residents) because it addresses traffic congestion on Columbia Road and significantly enhances the design of the front of the building. 

The only way to permit a curb cut is to demolish or cut into existing building because it sits at the edge of the sidewalk.  The developers do not plan to alter the footprint of that building.  Without a curb cut, saying Kevin residents will be dramatically increasing the traffic on both Columbia road and Bird Street, in an area that is already choked with traffic.

St Kevin's Developement Meeting 1/10/12Again, as at prior meetings, certain topics were immediately deemed not the responsibility of the developers (by the developers themselves) but rather the responsibility of the city of Boston or other organizations such as the MBTA, generally related to existing and an adequate infrastructure. 

Examples include the following:
  • the median strip on Columbia Road
  • the intersection of Columbia road and Hancock Street
  • how narrow Davern Avenue is
  • Limited and/or no parking on Columbia road
  • the location of the bus stop on Columbia road
  • Other
Judy Beckler's typical response was this:  "I cannot respond to the city of Boston issues.  If you would like to get the city of Boston to take care of this "

Residents were adamant that the developers take a position of advocacy regarding infrastructure.  It is completely unacceptable for developer to be given the right to develop property on a land mass that is nonstandard, substandard or that requires a variance that witll then continue to promote substandard conditions.

Residents demanded that the project plans include infrastructure contingency planning.  this will force the city of Boston and other organizations to sign off to these changes in advance of the project implementation or simultaneous to it.

Several residents pointed out that the "same" issues/complaints/recommendations come up at every meeting.  The residents bring up the issues but not the developers.

Every issue that has been brought up at prior meetings seems not to be on your plate.  So every meeting it's brought up again, and these have been brought up six or seven times.  It's the same issues over and over again.

You're the ones who need to know that we have made the suggestion.  You are the ones who need to keep track of the suggestions we have made.

From the perspective of the residents, it looked like the developers just didn't care.  If they did, they would have come with their notebooks full of the latest ideas and plans to address the issues discussed at all prior meetings.  Otherwise, what they are doing is nothing but lip service.

To this Judy Beckler replied: "The concerns have not changed one bit in terms of massing, shadow, parking and traffic.  To the extent that we can move any of those issues in addition to advocating on behalf of Upham's Corner . . ."

What did she really say?  It's not clear.  Everybody there has these four terms memorized: massing, shadow, parking and traffic.  She repeats the words but no progress is ever made.

The standard design process lays out alternatives, then looks at the pros and cons.  Picking an option in advance of assessing the impact on the community is unacceptable.

One resident pointed out that including the library in the same Kevin's housing development caused a dramatic change in the plans that negatively affected her home.  Because of the library, Building A will be demolished, raised one floor and set back closer to the abutters on Virginia Street (her home).  Did anyone on the design team assess the impact of that decision on the abutters before permanently making it the official plan?  It's such an obvious trade-off and it can't be assumed to be acceptable.  It requires neighborhood discussion.

Furthermore, by redesigning building A to include the library, the developers have designed a library where parking is difficult to access.  An example o the type of library that Upham's Corner needs it the combined Grove Hall Library and community space. 

If you examine closely how POUA is operating, its relationship with the community, you can see how the developers seem to operate in isolation of the community. There is no development team with resident members which meets regularly and frequently to keep the project on track and to keep it closely tied to what the community wants.  Instead update meetings are infrequent and the developers are not in touch with what the community wants.

Several residents asked that the project plans be made more publicly available, for example, on the developer website.  It doesn't make sense to announce new plans at a public meeting without residents having had a chance to examine the plans in advance so that intelligent questions can be Prepared for the public meeting.

In addition one of the residents said she has city planning experience and would like the chance to make a contribution to the overall design.

Several residents pointed out that the developers have not truly understood the nature of the neighborhood into which they are proposing to build. They have done inadequate traffic studies, have not advocated for infrastructure changes and do not know the character of the families that live around the St. Kevin's site.  None of the developers has spent time in the community, getting to know the nature of the people who live here.

You should be coming to our neighborhood to find out what life is like here in order to understand the potential impact of your project on our community.

Arion St and Davern Ave are filled with children playing safely in the streets.  What is going to happen as a result of this development?  Has anybody looked into that?  Arion St has a tremendous number of families with young children.  Those kids go back and forth to the St. Kevin's site all the time.  So our real concern is for the children who already live in this neighborhood. 

We want to make sure that the neighborhood retains its character for all of the children, not just the ones in the new development. 

To provide a perspective on the magnitude of the St. Kevin's housing development project, a resident pointed out the following:

If you look at the families on Arion St, Davern Ave, Virginia and Bird Streets and you add up all the people that are there now, the new units and all the families that will live there just about doubles the population of our neighborhood.

Without a careful understanding of the existing neighborhood, the developers have the potential for creating a housing project that will destroy the (character of the) neighborhood.

A resident brought up the "mix" of the housing being proposed.  "Are there any market units?  Are there any upscale units?"

This led to the group revisiting "why" the only housing type under development is "subsidized."  Two years ago Molly said: "There is no one who will fund or provide financing for market rate units."St Kevin's Developement Meeting 1/10/12

Let's go back to the St. Kevin's Planning Collaborative - the original community-based planning initiative that took place a couple years ago.

You still have an opportunity to re-examine what we, the community, wanted in the first place.  What we wanted was not just mixed housing.  It was also mixed-use. 

In other words: What happened to the community vision for Upham's Corner created by that visioning process?  What happened to the combined commercial/retail and affordable mixed housing that was the end result of the planning process? Instead of their vision, the community is being talked into something they never wanted and why?

You, the developers are looking at what you can afford to do that will come up with enough money that makes the project viable and generates a sale to the parish so that there is a trust fund for the Holy Family Parish.  That's basically what's going on here. 

I invite you to go back to that original report.  What the community wanted way back when, two or three years ago, is very different from what you guys have proposed.  This is like slipping a Mickey through this group.  It didn't even dawn on us that we were being coaxed into agreeing to something we never wanted.

Even though you say you cannot afford it, I still ask you to go back and look at it.  That's what this community wanted.  That's what it still wants.  Dense housing with families having an income up to 60% of the median income ranging from homeless to a high-end of subsidize middle-class.  This is just adding more poverty to Upham's Corner - dense poverty "“ and to a section of the city that is already that way.  What you're doing is not helping us.  It is helping the Holy Name Parish but not us.

Several of the residents realized that the community has agreed to accept a proposal out of fear that was considerably different from what we wanted.

If I heard this correctly, people are accepting your offer because they feel that not doing so means worse is coming.  That is operating from a position of fear.  It is fear that we have.

It is a fear that nothing will get done - for the last two years there has been nothing but trash and more trash.

Judy Beckler's comment is telling.  She is well aware that the project does not meet the vision of the Upham's Corner community.

Judy:  "I hear you in terms of what the financial model is.  That this project may not provide the community with all you of what is hoped for."   The question is:  Will it provide any of what the community hoped for?

One person pointed out that what the planning office is offering is just more of the same. Upham's Corner already has problems with labels such as "poverty" and "low education levels." 

We have group homes galore, a homeless shelter and now we're adding subsidized housing.  

The label we are going to get is not going to attract the kind of growth we want in Upham's Corner if the project is just another large apartment building.  If it would be possible to rebuild building A in such a way that was not just another apartment building.

In other words, more of the same and more reason for people to continue labeling Upham's Corner negatively. He then pointed out that the St. Kevin's site is part of the business district as defined by MainStreet.  What we need, he implied, is not housing but a source of economic development for Upham's Corner.

Several of the residents brought up the notion that to get final permission to build on the St.. Kevin' site, the developers need to show how their project is going to benefit Upham's Corner.

We never heard anything positive from Molly and Lisa about this development.  Except for the partnership between St. Mary's and housing, what is your project doing to improve Upham's Corner?  Working with St. Mary's?  That's wonderful, but it is not a fundamental improvement for Upham's Corner.  What is it bringing positive to Upham's Corner?  Upham's Corner needs a lot of positives.

We need a proposal that shows that what you put in place is going to truly rehab Upham's Corner, not a proposal that puts into place the same stuff we already have.  Then you could actually build something that's both functional and positive for the neighborhood.  All you are doing right now is tearing down one building and rehabbing another.

Yes, we might get a library but 300 more people and 50+ cars is a high price to pay for a library.  300 people is a lot of people to add to Upham's Corner.

These residents are right in their position.  Upham's car as a community is giving up a 2.7 acre site to more housing along a corridor that is rightfully within the business district.  This doesn't make any sense.  The project needs to benefit more than just the property owners.  It needs to enhance the appearance and economic viability of Upham's Corner.

A longtime resident of Upham's Corner who was part of the original planning process suggested that we rethink the use of the St. Kevin's site. 

When the developer was first designated, and plans started to take on a reality, there were questions about where the funding would come from.  The talk was that there weren't any businesses that would likely want to come into Upham's Corner and be a part of the community.  There wasn't funding for anything. 

In the meantime Ashmont - which I don't think is a whole lot different from Upham's Corner - Ashmont, around the transportation hub, has developed into a very high end residential complex with high-end restaurants. 

Somebody's coming to Dorchester with money.  I am wondering if it's because of the mission of the partners and the developer that you cannot consider the sort of higher end development which would attract business, etc

Another resident picked up on that same theme.

Her point is that we can be blindsided by what we see in Upham's Corner all the time - dumpy businesses, (I'm sorry if I offend anybody), businesses that we do not go to because they do not interest us, buildings on Columbia road that are empty because there are no businesses that want to be here. 

We are being blindsided because we do not see Upham's Corner for what it can be.  What could it be?  All you have to do is offer the right kind of business environment and you can attract people to come in here.  There has to be a way to do that - be it tax credits or any other approach.  It can be done. 

And if I could read between the lines about what was said:  Is it because you're associated with the Catholic Church that you are thinking in a limited way in what you build here?  I would invite you to not do that.  

Earlier in the discussion, Judy had pointed out that she wouldn't be surprised if it took two or three submissions to the Department of Housing and Community Development before they got their funding.  Without the funding, they cannot proceed with the construction.  The timeframe was anywhere from 9 to 13 months, a long lead time. One of the residents picked up on this point.

It could be another two years before the development gets underway.  So we do not know what the market is going to be.  So we're treading water with no update to the plans. 

In other words, we have an opportunity, in fact we are obligated to adjust the plans to the changes in the market and the opportunities available for a development that truly benefits Upham's Corner.

There is also history on our side.  Things change.

Let's take a broader historical look.  When I got here 40 years ago, the South End was really awful.  Now, is there a house in the South End that any of us could afford?

Same thing with JP.  We don't want to move towards gentrification where people can no longer afford to live but there are opportunities here.  This really could be very exciting and wonderful project.

Yes, the St. Kevin's site could be a very exciting project.  But if the community gives in to a standard, run-of-the-mill, uninspired housing development because the developers know it will work, then the community will be missing one of the final opportunities available to Upham's Corner.  Open landmasses are hard to find.

Poverty and low educational levels - those are labels that stigmatize Upham's Corner but they are also the facts. Upham's Corner has approximately 14,000 people in 0.33 mi.² giving it a population density of over 40,000, this in contrast to an overall population density in Boston of just over 13,000.

So what do developers want to do is put more housing and more cars into Upham's Corner.  Besides feeling aghast at the thought of more people in a space that is ready to burst, how should the residents react to such a proposal?

Look away from this possibility, and look instead at the practical question:

What does Upham's Corner need?

The answer is obvious.  Given the low educational levels not only in Upham's Corner but in the adjacent areas of Roxbury, the most affective use of this site is to form the foundation of an educational campus that becomes the hallmark of the community and the new label used to define the community.

After Columbia Rd is depressed and the existing space becomes a luscious greenway, the campus will take true form. 

A simple statement from a resident at the meeting: 

Having the Strand Theater here, we should build around that.

Upham's Corner Educational Campus

Click image to enlarge

Another person continued:

What our neighbor here said is key:  "The Strand Theatre."  If you look at what constitutes anchors in Upham's Corner, CVS attracts people.  The post office is also an anchor for Upham's Corner.  The really big anchor, what possesses the possibility to help transform Upham's Corner, is the Strand. 

Several of us are adamant about the potential for Upham's Corner to become an educational campus with the Strand Theatre, that shining star, serving as a focal point. Hancock Street, Columbia Road which is part of the Emerald necklace, along with the empty historical buildings in Upham's Corner can form the foundation of what will be an important benefit to this community and it will draw others in.   Upham's Corner, itself, can become a destination.

So what do we need as a community? 

We don't need more housing.  Housing is going to do nothing for Upham's Corner.  Housing is like somebody buying more clothes for the already overflowing closet or buying more shoes to put on the floor where there is no space left or more games or tools or gadgets that, in the long run, do nothing to improve the quality of life. 

What we need is an educational facility that addresses the needs of the residents of Upham's Corner and close by.  We also need a place where we can share our hopes and dreams and give expression through the arts.  The Strand Theatre stands ready to do that and to shine as the centerpiece or our community.

| Copyright © 2010-2014 Uphams Corner News - All Rights Reserved |