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Roxbury residents not really buying Olympic promise

Eliza Dewey
Roxbury residents not really buying Olympic promise
Residents voiced their concerns and questions about the city’s Olympic bid at a community meeting last week

Roxbury community members took to the mic at a public meeting last week on the city’s Olympic bid, voicing a general view that ranged from gentle skepticism to sharp concern.

While some residents supported the plan as a chance to bring potential investment to the area, the overall sentiment at the city-sponsored meeting was that Boston2024, the group behind the Olympic push, has not answered enough of residents’ questions for them to hop on board just yet.

Residents raised the same concerns about transparency and public process that have dogged Boston2024 since January, as well as issues more specific to Roxbury: residential displacement and the desire for a concrete plan to include minority business owners in games-related contracting.

The meeting was the fourth city-sponsored meeting on the Olympic proposal, and featured Boston2024 CEO Rich Davey, city representative John FitzGerald of the BRA, general counsel Paige Scott Reed, Olympic rower Tracy Brown, and Corey Dinopoulos, a Dracut native who first started promoting a Boston Olympics as part of a passion project several years ago.

Many residents tied their qualms to painful memories of other times when large-scale, top-down planning in Boston was not kind to many of the city’s black residents.

Sarah Ann Shaw, the former WBZ-TV reporter who lives in Roxbury, said she was concerned the Olympic gambit sounded too much like the city’s experimentations with urban renewal from the 1960s to the 1980s, when the city used eminent domain to seize and raze large swaths of residential land.

“I’m just concerned, having lived through that, that we are not being sold something that happened in Washington Park [an urban renewal area],” she said. “We are still suffering from urban renewal.”

Other residents linked the project to contemporary concerns about displacement, a topic that has gained considerable attention as the area has seen significant economic development and the expansion of local universities like Northeastern.

Displacement fears

“People, read between the lines,” one audience member implored his neighbors as he reached the microphone. “What is happening [in this city] is gentrification, and Boston 2024 is just another way to speed it up.”

“They moved us out of the South End,” another man said, addressing the panel. “I see your benefit, but I don’t see no benefit for the people. All I know is, everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been bamboozled. We’ve been hoodwinked.”

Mayor Walsh has stated publicly that he will not allow the use of eminent domain – by which the government seizes private land for development – in order to facilitate the bid.

FitzGerald said that he heard audience members concerns about displacement loud and clear.

“I’m completely with you on this issue,” he said. “I rent now. I wish I could buy!” He added a personal note almost identical to what audience members repeatedly expressed: “I don’t want to be priced out of my city.”

Paige Scott Reid, Boston2024’s general counsel, said the group took their concerns seriously.

“There have been worries about displacement. Part of the answer is available housing – making sure affordable housing [stock] increases,” she said. “We are putting together a group to look at other cities and mitigate that threat.”

Boston2024 has emphasized that the construction of housing units for the athlete’s village – proposed for Dorchester’s Harbor Point – would help address the city’s housing crunch by adding a significant number of units to the market’s supply.

A specific plan on the housing issue has not yet been released. Officials said options include keeping the units there to essentially create a new neighborhood or moving the housing units – which Boston2024 says will be easy to transport – elsewhere in the city. They have said repeatedly that the housing units could fit into Mayor Walsh’s long-term housing plan, released last October, that calls for 53,000 additional housing units by 2030.

Indeed, earlier this year, Boston2024 issued a series of commitments, including one to create “thousands of affordable housing units.” During the question-and-answer period, one audience member recalled that promise and pressed for more specific details.

FitzGerald said it was too early to promise exact numbers. “You’re asking me to put a guarantee on a plan that has not been produced,” he said.

Davey added that details were forthcoming. “What we will put out later this summer is a detailed plan.” He added the information would be made public “way in advance” of a vote on the matter.

Minority-owned businesses

Another focus of the night was the question of how many minority- and women-owned businesses would benefit from the games.

Louis Elisa, a longtime Roxbury civic leader, likened the challenge faced by Boston 2024 to Boston’s bid to host the Democratic convention in 2004.

“To win that, we had to show we are inclusive [in terms of racial diversity],” he said. “I’m hopeful if you’re trying to win, you put together a winning team.”

A particularly illustrative moment came during a tense back-and-forth between panelist Paige Scott Reed and former state Senator Diane Wilkerson. Prior to the exchange, Scott Reed and others on the panel had invoked Wilkerson’s name to signal their communication with leaders in the black community on issues of diversity and inclusion.

During the audience discussion, Wilkerson approached the mic. “You’ve heard my name six times tonight from this panel,” she said. “You would think I’m involved, but I’m not.” Turning to the panelists, she said, “The conversations have been an attempt to get people to agree with what you already decided to do.”

What followed was ten minutes of intense exchange between Wilkerson and Scott Reed. Wilkerson criticized the Boston2024 team for lacking a specific plan, especially since similar diversity targets have been met before as a part of other city planning. When Scott Reed raised the point that she had been on the job for just two months, Wilkerson said that Davey and John Fish, who have championed the city’s bid, should have made diversity goals more central to the operation since day one.

“You can’t win the referendum without the support of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan,” Wilkerson said. “And you can do it – by doing the right thing. But I’m not volunteering. If we do it as a volunteer, you won’t respect it.”

Scott Reed said that more details on a plan for diversity within the Boston2024 bid would be forthcoming. “We haven’t left the commitment,” she said. In a conversation with the Banner after the meeting she added, “The faster we can recruit, the faster we can move ahead.”

Community process concerns

The night also brought some rebuke from the crowd about how the bid process has unfolded in a sort of chicken-and-egg manner: audience members expressed frustration that they were expected to form an opinion on a contest that still included so many unanswered questions, while panelists insisted that the whole point of the community meetings was to gather ideas that could be used to craft answers to those questions.

One man expressed his wariness to get involved in something that might end up as just a bunch of broken promises.

“Many of us want opportunities,” he said. “But we don’t want to just eat up what’s in front of us and then ask, ‘What was that?’ And it feels good, but all I hear is, ‘We’re gonna do some stuff.’ And I have no more clarity [about the bid] than I did months before.”

The BRA’s FitzGerald said he understood the frustrations of community members who felt the information about the plan was still too incomplete.

“It’s difficult to present a full plan to the community,” he said. “We want to hear from you first.” He added a personal note: “I hate coming before you guys and saying ‘I don’t know.’”

Audience members pushed back on Boston 2024’s argument that the group’s plans were still a work-in-progress or that the organization really cared as much about community input as it claimed. At one point, FitzGerald said the group was still in the conceptual phase. “We haven’t made any decisions.”

Shaw, the former WBZ reporter, quickly retorted, “Yes you have – you’ve hired staff!” Her response was met with claps from the audience.

Although the Olympic endeavor was made public in January, the planning process goes back several years. A volunteer exploratory committee including Dan O’Connell, now-chairman of Boston2024 John Fish, the Patriots’ Bob Kraft, and former governor Mitt Romney was formed in early 2013. By the end of that year, a Beacon Hill feasibility committee was formed with the help of legislation from state Senator Eileen Donoghue.

Still, panelists used some positive comments and suggestions for ideas from some audience members to focus on what bidders have said is essentially a city planning exercise. Following an audience comment about the possibility of creating a direct transit line from Dudley to Mattapan Square, FitzGerald praised the generation of such ideas.

“That’s what gets me excited,” he said. “These are the ideas that are going to come out of this [process], whether we get the bid or not.”

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