Roxbury residents who packed an auditorium at the Dudley Square branch of the Boston Public Library blasted the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and Mayor Thomas M. Menino during a meeting of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee on Monday.
The oversight committee called the meeting to give BRA Director John F. Palmieri the opportunity to explain his agency’s decision to pull the plug on the Elma Lewis Partners LLC development team’s $400 million redevelopment of Parcel 3, a large expanse of long-vacant land on Tremont Street.
Oversight Committee members in January voted unanimously in support of the re-designation of Elma Lewis Partners as the project’s developers.
The controversy over the project has pitted community members against the BRA.
“There is a perception of the BRA in this community,” said Oversight Committee member Beverly Adams. “This would be a good time to change that perception.”
Despite a lengthy explanation of the agency’s dealings with Elma Lewis Partners, however, Palmieri seemed to spark more ire in the audience.
What ensued was nearly two hours of back-and-forth among Palmieri, the developers and angry community members.
The looming standoff between the Oversight Committee and the BRA represents a major challenge for the Menino administration.
In the early years of Menino’s mayoral tenure, Roxbury residents complained of the city selling off land to developers with little or no community input. The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan was meant to change that.
The document, drafted by community residents working with the BRA, was supposed to function as a sort of covenant between the City of Boston and Roxbury residents that would govern the city’s sale of the large parcels of city- and state-owned land cleared during the Urban Renewal program of the 1960s and 1970s.
But while community residents now have a greater say in the drafting of requests for proposals and the selection of developers, many still see the mayor’s hand in the land disposition process.
Perhaps the closest semblance of an olive branch in Monday’s meeting came from Roxbury resident Paula Ross, who told Palmieri that the blame for the de-designation of the site should properly be placed with Menino.
“You have been stabbed in the back by your staff because they want to keep their jobs,” she said to Palmieri. “You have been lied to.”
Ross, like many in the audience, was responding to allegations printed in an April 3, 2009, Boston Herald article that the mayor ordered the Elma Lewis Partners team de-designated as developers after they effectively demoted John Kavanagh, a Menino ally and campaign contributor, who was serving as project manager.
While Menino has denied intervening in the development, the perception of a mayoral hand in BRA decisions remained a constant during Monday’s meeting, with some residents calling for Menino himself to answer to the community.
“I don’t see the mayor here,” said Indya Portlock. “The mayor needs to be here. I’m at the point now where I’m done. I’ve had enough.”
Palmieri responded to the onslaught by repeating assertions that the Elma Lewis Partners did not meet preconditions for development of the site in the year-and-a-half that they were designated developers. Palmieri said the team did not secure financing, test the soil on the site or draw up architectural plans for development.
Members of the development team say they had financiers committed to investing in the project and that the BRA stymied their efforts by refusing to grant them the legal permits necessary to gain access to the site to test the soil.
Dennis Tourse, attorney for Elma Lewis Partners, submitted to the Oversight Committee and Palmieri copies of correspondence with BRA staff documenting his attempts to obtain access to the site and demonstrating interest from financiers.
“How can we hear the BRA say we have done nothing when they have received in writing expressions of interest from well-capitalized financiers?” Tourse asked. “That seems disingenuous.”
City Councilor-at-Large Michael Flaherty, who is running against Menino in the upcoming mayoral election, asked why the BRA de-designated the Elma Lewis Partners during an economic downturn that has effectively put dozens of construction projects on hold.
“I think the role of the BRA is to support the community,” he said. “How is this project different from Heyward Place, a project that had no community support? It was designated in 2003. It’s now a parking lot.”
Flaherty pointed to Harvard University’s stalled development projects in Allston, which have left gaping holes in the ground there, and the halted redevelopment of the Filene’s site in Downtown Crossing, which he likened to the bombed-out Iraqi city of Fallujah.
“Everybody’s calling out [for] a moratorium,” Flaherty said. “[But] when it comes to Parcel 3, they want to de-designate.”
Palmieri said the development teams for the other projects had already completed their Article 80 processes, obtaining the necessary financing and permits.
Numerous audience members, including Flaherty’s fellow at-large city councilor and mayoral candidate Sam Yoon, asked Palmieri to restore the designation to Elma Lewis Partners.
Palmieri would not entertain the notion of re-designating the team, although he said the BRA would put the parcel out to bid again.
Yoon told Palmieri that community members no longer have faith in the BRA.
“How do you expect the process going forward will have any trust from the community?” he said. “I haven’t heard a single word of support for the BRA’s decision.”
"Elma Lewis is just five years in her grave, and the city has already launched a campaign to destroy her legacy," the Banner wrote in its March 12, 2009, editorial. "Roxbury community pride must prevent this from happening." More »
"There was always a sense that wheelers and dealers wanted to use the P-3 site for a project to benefit themselves rather than the community," the Banner wrote in its Nov. 20, 2008, editorial. "The BRA’s attempt to decertify the Elma Lewis group is of questionable legality. It also of questionable ethics to move to decertify a legally appointed developer when a credit squeeze affects the whole industry." More »
“We’re very pleased,” said E.J. Walton, president of Elma Lewis Partners LLC, the developer behind Ruggles Place. “We are looking forward to an opportunity to continue working in good faith with the community to make that parcel vibrant for our youth.” More »
It’s back to the drawing boards for three potential developers of Parcel 3, one of the last remaining large tracts of land in Roxbury. The Boston Redevelopment Authority sent each of the developers a letter last month explaining that none of them had met the “minimum financial requirement” and, as a result, all of them were considered to be “equally unqualified.” More »