Abutters lose against connected developer
The development process at 36 Temple St. in Mattapan could serve as a case study in how controversial real estate projects moved forward during the eight-year administration of former Mayor Martin Walsh.
After real estate developer Solomon Chowdhury’s Shanti Acquisition LLC in 2018 purchased a single-family home that had a historic designation, neighbors say a hole appeared under the eaves. Within a year, the property was condemned due to water damage, and the building was torn down.
In a scenario that has played out across the city, the developer applied for a slew of zoning variances that sought to transform a parcel zoned for a one-family home into one with eight luxury townhouse condominiums. As is the case in many development projects, the cast of characters involved in the approval process and development of the Temple Street property includes major players with ties to city government.
Appearing on behalf of Shanti Acquisitions LLC during a Jan. 12, 2020 meeting of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) were attorney Mike Ross, a former city councilor, and architect Edward Roache, whose former business partner, William “Buddy” Christopher, led the city’s Inspectional Services Department until just a few months earlier in 2019.
Christopher’s departure from city government came on the heels of a U.S. attorney’s office investigation into a South Boston condo project that was greenlighted after the developer allegedly paid a city official a $50,000 bribe and Christopher and the Roache-Christopher Architects, LLC represented the project before the ZBA board.
Within days of Christopher’s resignation, ZBA member Craig Galvin abruptly resigned without citing a reason. Galvin, who owns a real estate brokerage, sold properties on behalf of at least four developers whose projects he voted favorably on when on the ZBA board, according to a GBH News report.
Now, in 2022, the broker listing the eight condominium units on Temple Street is Craig Galvin.
During the January 2020 ZBA hearing, the board heard Shanti Acquisitions LLC’s request for variances. Because the lot was zoned for a single-family home and Chowdhury’s plans called for a total of eight units across five buildings that exceeded the permissible floor-area-to-lot-size ratio, building height and setback ratio for the neighborhood’s zoning, he would need the board to grant variances to the zoning code.
Mayor’s Office representative Roudnie Célestin acknowledged that the city had received letters of opposition from the River Street Civic Association and the Lower Mills Civic Association, and said the city agreed that the multi-unit development was out of character for the neighborhood, but said her office was in support of the project.
“Given our mission to increase housing and homeownership in the city, we go on the record in support,” she told the ZBA board.
A representative for then-City Councilor Andrea Campbell spoke in opposition to the project, as did neighborhood residents Gary Tondorf-Dick and Javon Lacet.
Tondorf-Dick, an abutter, began by describing the historic nature of the building and carriage house that Chowdhury had torn down. About a minute into his testimony, ZBA Chairwoman Christine Araujo interrupted.
“The part that’s different about this project is that it’s 26,000 square feet,” she said, referring to the lot. “So I completely get it that it’s a one-family zone … but that’s for your standard lot size.”
Tondorf-Dick countered that the development as proposed could house as many as 48 people and cited concerns about the size and density of the wood-frame homes proposed for the lot. A year earlier, a fire had torn through the street, burning eight homes as fire fighters struggled with what they said was inadequate water service in the area.
“I just want to get the highlights,” Araujo told him, before cutting him off twice more.
“Okay, thank you. Anyone else?” she said, ending Tondorf-Dick’s testimony.
Lacet, who spoke next, voiced concerns about the process, citing multiple meetings in which neighbors voiced opposition.
“I’m surprised that the city liaison person approved this when everybody, all the politicians, everybody who’s attended so many of these hearings …”
“So, I’m sorry,” Araujo cut in. “Let me ask you, what is your opposition based on?”
“The safety, the density,” Lacet responded. “This is not the kind of area to increase density in, Madam Chair…”
“Okay, sir, thank you,” Araujo cut Lacet off. “I think we’ve gotten a good amount of information from various sources. Based on that information, may I have a motion please?”
Barely a minute later, after a motion and a vote, the variances passed, with two ZBA members voting in opposition.
‘We didn’t really have a say’
Two years later, the project is substantially completed, with a Galvin Group sign fronting a cull-de-sac of condominium townhomes. The development process for Temple Street, one where the interests of developers with politically connected architects, lawyers and brokers outweigh abutters and local elected officials, played out across the city during the eight years of the Walsh administration.
While in years past, civic groups met with city planners and decided on zoning codes that determined the height and density of new housing built in their neighborhoods, in recent years, zoning variances have become the norm, rather than the exception, giving developers the ability to redefine the streetscape and increase the profitability of their ventures.
During the January 2020 ZBA hearing, Araujo cited the city’s goals to increase housing production and homeownership — a push that saw more than 30,000 units permitted — yet Tondorf-Dick said the push for new units has done nothing to make the city more affordable for the people who live here.
“There’s an attitude in Boston that zoning is antiquated,” he told the Banner. “Zoning is there to protect the resident. But the housing being built in Boston is not being built for existing residents.”
The neighborhood is changing. A stone’s throw from Tondorf-Dick’s Temple Street home, in a backyard-abutting lot at 52-54 River Street that once held two houses, developers have built 18 units, steamrolling over abutter opposition.
Tondorf-Dick says he and his neighbors are not opposed to the development of new housing. But after a process in which the objections of two neighborhood groups, abutters and a local city councilor were overridden, he says he and his neighbors are frustrated.
“I was surprised that the Zoning Board didn’t give us time to talk,” he said. “What that told me was that as abutters who have put their life savings into their homes, we didn’t really have a say.”