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Good jobs topic dominates Oversight Committee meeting

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Good jobs topic dominates Oversight Committee meeting
Roxbury resident Benjamin Jackson speaks to Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee members about the need for good jobs in the community.

With a number of major Roxbury development projects poised to advance this year, calls are growing ever louder for the projects to bring good jobs and community benefits.

At the Jan. 5 meeting of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, a standing-room-only crowd listened closely as developer teams gave updates on projects that promise to fill long-vacant parcels near Dudley Square with hundreds of thousands of square feet of residential, retail, office and cultural space. Though all were approved as projects that would enliven the area and provide jobs and wealth-building opportunities for the Roxbury community, some residents and activists are concerned that in reality, the types of businesses slated to occupy the sites may offer only low-wage, part-time, low-benefit jobs.

Kamran Zahedi, whose firm Urbanica is developing a 108-room hotel on Parcel 9 at Melnea Cass Boulevard and Washington Street, told the Oversight Committee he is negotiating with a Marriott franchisee to operate a Residence Inn Extended Stay hotel on the site and pay an estimated 30 to 40 workers a minimum of $13.80 per hour. While this figure closely matches the city of Boston’s Living Wage of $13.89 and the wage the Boston Jobs Coalition has pushed the Oversight Committee to adopt as a minimum, it still is below union standards.

Zahedi said he would certainly prefer to have a higher-wage hotel. He explained that he contacted Local 26 and spoke with 20 hotels but could not find any hotel willing to offer union wages at the Parcel 9 site. He also said some hotels perceived Melnea Cass Boulevard as rife with uncertainty as it undergoes a street redesign and potential public transit changes.

Committee members also asked about construction wages and local and minority hiring. Zahedi affirmed that the construction of his Parcel 9 project would adhere to the Committee’s standard goals of 51 percent of job hours to local residents, 51 percent to people of color and 15 percent to female workers.

Still, Committee Co-chair Jorge Martinez said he would push for non-approval of a project if the committee had not seen written agreements on hiring goals and other community benefits.

“Building a hotel is not a community benefit,” Martinez said. “We need things that are going to improve the neighborhood, give back to the community.”

Committee Chair Darnell Williams reminded the developers that many of the parcels under development had been dormant for 40 years after being razed in the name of urban renewal, and the community wants to see some benefit as the parcels finally come back to life.

“We want to see some reciprocity, where there are not only jobs but some economic benefit and leverage for the community, because we’ve had to live through this,” Williams said. “What does the community get as a result of all this? We don’t just want to see the developers do well. They can do well and still do good.”

In an update on the proposed Tremont Crossing development on Parcel 3 across from the Boston Police Headquarters, developers Barry Gaither and Barry Feldman explained that they had been negotiating since last February with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. A confidentiality agreement kept them from making this public until the news of MassDOT’s planned 800,000-square-foot office tower at the site was published in the Boston Globe last month.

The Tremont Crossing team also confirmed that their expected anchor retail tenant is BJ’s Wholesale Club, which has rankled some labor activists who say the big-box store will bring only low-wage jobs.

In the 15-minute Q-and-A period at the RSMPOC meeting, residents pressed developers and the Committee on ensuring jobs with better wages. Some mentioned the Hyatt’s sudden replacement in 2009 of its housekeepers with external staff earning only half as much, and cautioned that written agreements should be secured.

“Even Jesus said, ‘It is written…,’” said Henrique Fernandes, a union hotel worker. “If the Hyatt can do it, anyone can do it.”

Kalila Barnett of Alternatives for Community and Environment noted that the Local 26 hospitality union starts workers at $18 per hour with benefits; another speaker said nearly every new hotel in Boston signs an agreement with Local 26 before they are built, citing the nearby Hampton Inn Crosstown as a union hotel.

“The hotel chosen by Urbanica is non-union, and will pay $5 less than union standard,” Barnett said. “I’m wondering, why is Roxbury being treated differently?”

Former City Councilor Chuck Turner reminded the Committee that one of the key objectives of the Roxbury Master Plan was wealth creation for residents.

“If a developer that is using public land says they won’t support to right of workers to organize, to increase workers’ share of the profits being made, it’s a direct contradiction of the principle of wealth creation,” Turner said. “The developers and architects and lawyers will make money — but what about the workers?”

Reached by phone after the meeting, Zahedi said he believes his Parcel 9 project is still fulfilling the original mission of creating jobs, enhancing the area and connecting neighborhoods.

“The city knows I’ve been very cooperative,” he added. “I want to collaborate with the neighborhood, the unions and the city to make this project happen. I wish the city would have specified these wage demands in the RFP four years ago.”

He clarified that while $13.80 is the wage floor for his hotel franchisee, supervisors could start as high as $25.40 per hour. He said the hotel will hire 70 percent of its workforce from the local neighborhood and will use local vendors.

Zahedi also noted that the Hampton Inn has known financial troubles and is not a good model to follow. Financiers he approached were skeptical of the hotel proposal because of Hampton Inn’s problems, he said.

The last attendee to speak was Benjamin Jackson, a Roxbury resident who works as a union electrician but is concerned about the effects of low-paying jobs on families.

“As a member of the community, as a father, as a lifelong resident of Roxbury, I know that there are many people who are heads of households who want to work hard, and are committed to upholding higher standards for our children,” he said. “If we have money and wealth coming in for some, we need to provide opportunities for residents to go and earn a livable wage so they can support their children.”

Speaking over applause, he added, “Nobody wants anything for free. We’re just asking for an opportunity to maintain, since this is a city of people, not just corporations and business interests.”

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