At a meeting last night at the Tynan School in South Boston, BRA Director Thomas O'Brien faced a heated panel of Boston City Councilors (Jim Kelly, Peggy Davis-Mullen, Mickey Roache, Stephen F. Murphy, Paul Scapicchio) and South Boston political leaders Senator Stephen F. Lynch and Representative Jack Hart. A number of SAND members attended.
The only two topics of the hostile discussion --during which harsh personal epithets were exchanged long before any citizen testimony was heard, were the BRA's plans for developing 5,000-8,000 residential units in the South Boston Seaport District and the anger felt by many who thought the BRA had been intentionally promoting the Seaport District as a Boston, not a South Boston address.
Mr. O'Brien, apparently stung by having his veracity repeatedly questioned, angrily left the meeting early into the evening and returned after a brief cooling-off period. City Council President Kelly also displayed an uncomfortable sense of outrage. These two men are seemingly incapable of trusting each other or working together. Senator Lynch and Representative Hart, in support of Councilor Kelly, withdrew all support for the BRA Public Realm Plan.
Thankfully, and to the overwhelming applause of approximately 200 South Boston residents in attendance, two long-time residents provided the closing testimony for the evening. These residents gave deeply heartfelt testimonials about their families and multi-generational ties to the community. They both stated that the evening's hot rhetoric and name-calling was inappropriate, and both registered disappointment that South Boston's political leadership would work against a 2-year planning effort because of a naming issue, and a difference over 1-2 thousand housing units. Both men appealed to all the political leaders to get back to work and achieve compromise.
These two residents were able to bring this meeting to an uplifting close.
A number of significant points were made during the evening, which help understand the gap between South Boston leaders and the BRA.
Mr. O'Brien demonstrated commendable resolve regarding the number of housing units (5,000 - 8,000) in order to make the waterfront a 24-hour livable area.
The opposition to housing is due to a number of issues. A popular yet unspoken notion is that housing will weaken South Boston's existing voting power. At this meeting, however, it became much more evident that A) Senator Lynch fears that housing will kill the blue-collar opportunities for work in the MIP and B) South Boston's political leaders do not trust the City in linkage spending on affordable housing within the South Boston neighborhood.
Both issues raise legitimate concerns and warrant further thought.
The South Boston community will be impacted and therefore should be compensated through linkage. Council President Kelly is concerned that residential development does not return linkage and therefore will not help the South Boston neighborhood. He stated at this meeting that 5,000-8,000 housing units could reduce linkage payments by $20 million (based on his estimate that a strictly commercial district could return $40 million).
In defense of residential growth, Mr. O'Brien asserts that A) residential development will alleviate the incredible stresses on the housing market B) will make the waterfront a vibrant area and therefore more encouraging for commercial enterprises (which can generate linkage). O'Brien also suggested that housing subsidies could be made available to increase available housing funds.
Councilor Kelly indicated that the City has a terrible track record in allocating linkage for South Boston -- an area that has received under 2% of over $45 million since the linkage program began. He also stated that there were legal precedents for a community to receive a significant compensation for impacts that it experienced, whereas the BRA feels that linkage should be distributed more evenly across Boston.
One revealing area of discussion demonstrated the lack of trust between the BRA and the City Council. Mr. O'Brien has stated the City's position that all linkage payments will go to a public trust where it will be distributed fairly to different neighborhoods. South Boston leaders, however, were under the impression that 50% of linkage would go to the South Boston Betterment Trust (SBBT) for distribution (NOTE: for better or worse, this was also our impression from past meetings). South Boston leaders stated that they had approved the Convention Center with this understanding. The BRA believes that the SBBT may receive optional matching funds from developers, but Mr. O'Brien did not indicate why a developer would make such a voluntary contribution.
In summary, South Boston leaders feel that the positive and negative effects of waterfront development are not being properly mitigated for the benefit of the impacted community. SAND has supported the position that South Boston should be able to secure an ample percentage of linkage while still enabling significant residential development on its waterfront.
Mr. O'Brien's position is also reasonable in that he does not want to sacrifice the success of the waterfront for the sake of maximizing linkage.
South Boston leaders want South Boston to retain some control over the Seaport District, an area they (and their constituents) have looked after for many generations. Councilor Kelly's suggestion that it be called the "South Boston waterfront" is unworkable because it confuses people with Carson beach and other harborside areas.
The BRA has not been clear on why the "South Boston" name should not be attached to the area. It was implied last night that developers are pushing for a "Boston" address because of the name cache.
SAND continues to call the area the "South Boston Seaport District".
The meeting between the BRA and City Council was absolutely jaw-dropping by everyone in attendance. No one was aware of the hostility between Director O'Brien and Councilor Kelly. The level of personal attacks against O'Brien were unwarranted, but were indicative of a deep sense of mistrust between the BRA (as an organization) and the City Council.
Although SAND has had disagreements with almost every party involved, we have been optimistic that these leaders could come to a workable compromise on the waterfront plan. We continue to express this belief based on the actual issues of concern and will look forward to working with Mr. O'Brien, Councilor Kelly, Senator Lynch and Rep. Hart -- hopefully long into the future.
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