Roxbury development projects generate contentious debate
Roxbury neighbors express opposition to charter, question plan for student housing
Controversial development projects dominated Monday’s meeting of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, the group charged with delivering community input on major development projects on city and state-owned land in Roxbury.
The Nuestra Comunidad community development corporation is pushing forward with contentious plans to build a charter school at the site of the former Bartlett Yard MBTA bus facility. Developer Urbanica has persuaded its hotel partner to pay workers $18 an hour in the complex it hopes to build at Melnea Cass Boulevard and Washington Street, but community residents remain skeptical of the project.
And Parcel 3 developers are treading on thin ice with a plan to build student housing on their Lower Roxbury site — a move Roxbury residents say could inflame long simmering tensions between neighborhood residents and Northeastern University.
“What was your process on getting feedback to determine that this would be on the menu for tonight’s conversation?” asked Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee member Charlotte Nelson.
The Parcel 3 developers, who were among the three at the RSMPOC meeting to deliver updates on their projects, emphasized that the idea was in its early stages.
“This is something we’re exploring,” said Jeffrey Feldman, vice president for the Greater Boston region of Feldco Development. “We’re taking our cues from the city’s housing policy.”
Mayor Martin Walsh has called for the production of more housing units as a way to increase supply and bring down prices, and has asked colleges to build more on-campus housing to remove students from the rental market. But previous attempts by Northeastern and other local colleges to build student housing in Roxbury were met with fierce opposition in years past. RSMPOC Chairman Norman Stembridge suggested that the developers run their proposal by the project review committee for Parcel 3.
“This is something you’ll want to bring to the project review committee sooner rather than later,” he said.
Opposition to charter school
Nuestra Comunidad’s plan to site the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Bartlett Yard, a plan much farther along than the Parcel 3 plan, sparked vigorous opposition at the RSMPOC meeting. Mike Miles, who sits on the Bartlett Yard Project Review Committee, noted that they have opposed the plan since he and other members found out about it in the newspaper.
“We have been opposed to the school,” he said. “We’ve been concerned that this is a significant change to what was in the request for proposals and that this hasn’t been brought to the project review committee as a formal proposal.”
Nuestra Comunidad Executive Director David Price circulated the results of three focus groups and a community meeting, showing 19 in favor of the Conservatory Lab, 11 against and two undecided. But Roxbury resident Rodney Singleton said community opposition to the school was consistent.
“I’ve been to literally every single meeting they’ve held,” he said. “In every single meeting there’s been stern opposition to this school.”
Singleton said the development of the site was meant to generate economic activity in Roxbury. The school, which is open to students from all neighborhoods and has no seats set aside for Roxbury residents, would not bring a significant number of new jobs to the neighborhood.
“I don’t see how they got 19 people to agree that this school should be a part of this project,” Singleton said. “This is nonsense. Absolute nonsense.”
The project that seemed to generate the least friction in Monday’s meeting was Urbanica’s proposed hotel on Parcel 10, at the corner of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Washington Street. Urbanica principal Kamran Zahedi said the hotel operator selected for the site has agreed to pay workers $18 an hour, to commit $400,000 in funding for job training programs and hire 45 people to work in the hotel.
In past meetings the project generated controversy as the hotel operator has steadfastly refused to agree to allow union organizing at the hotel. Labor activists, who vociferously opposed the project in previous meetings, were mostly silent Monday.
RSMPOC members approved the development project last year, but the Boston Redevelopment Authority has been stalling the project since labor organizers began protesting the hotel operator’s refusal to allow union organizing.
“No one can tell me how this project can move along?” questioned RSMPOC member Valeda Britton. This is really troublesome.”
BRA Deputy Director for Community Planning Lara Merida said the project would likely come up for a vote at the BRA’s next meeting, Nov. 10.
Mixed-income in Dudley
Having completed the development of a new Tropical Foods supermarket, Madison Park Development Corporation is moving forward with plans to redevelop the grocer’s former location, a large four-story building on Washington Street. While the first floor will remain a retail space, according to Senior Project Manager Loryn Shefner, the upper floors will house 30 apartments — nine market rate, 5 moderate-income and 16 available to households earning no more than 60 percent of the HUD Area Median Income.