Lawyers enter church debate

October 20, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH

HYDE SQ.—Lawyers hired by opponents of the Blessed Sacrament Church redevelopment showed up at the latest community meeting Tuesday night, upping the ante in an increasingly bitter debate.

“We want to make sure density is not so high it changes the neighborhood,” said attorney José Vincenty at the crowded Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) meeting at Curtis Hall. A lawsuit is an “option,” attorney Neil Osborne told the Gazette.

JPNC chair Nelson Arroyo told Joel Parry, one of the residents who hired the attorneys, after the meeting that much of the opposition to density is actually “based on the color of the skin or the economic condition of people who will live there.”

Parry responded that it is the developers—the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and New Atlantic Development—who haven’t been forthcoming about their motives. He said abutters haven’t been able to get clear density information from the team.

The actual issue before the council was a proposed “map amendment,” or rezoning of the entire church site. It is currently zoned for single-family houses, which would not allow the largely affordable apartments, condos and commercial space the developers want to build. The project includes 118 new housing units.

The developers want to extend nearby multi-family and neighborhood shopping zoning districts to cover the site. The rezoning would also allow about two to four times the current density, and the project would near those limits.

“People have said, ‘Gee, isn’t this spot zoning?’” said Jonathan Klein, an attorney for the developers. Spot zoning is illegally rezoning a property out of context with the neighborhood for the financial benefit of the owner. Resident James Lesnick and others suggested at the meeting that it is indeed spot zoning.

“The short answer is no,” Klein said, arguing that the proposed rezoning is in context, supported by the neighborhood and offers community benefits.

The JPNC didn’t vote on the rezoning because its committees have yet to do so. The Zoning Committee will hold a special meeting Nov. 2 about the rezoning. The Housing and Development Committee is also attempting to schedule a hearing. (Contact chair Francesca Fordiani for the date at 524-5922.) It is unclear when and how the full council would vote on the matter after that.

The rezoning became the latest flashpoint for issues of race, class, neighborhood character and the council itself—something that has happened frequently with Blessed Sacrament since it closed in 2004.

Four JPNC members extra-cautiously recused themselves from the meeting, though only one reported a direct conflict of interest. That’s Arroyo, who serves on the city’s Zoning Commission, which ultimately will decide on the rezoning. Jesús Gerena, Kevin Leary and Steve Backman were the other three, having worked with JPNDC on other projects.

The extra caution seems to have come from some resident complaints that, as Arroyo said he heard it, “the Neighborhood Council is in the NDC’s pocket.”

“The NDC does not tell me what to do,” Arroyo said. “Nobody on this council is in the pocket of the Neighborhood Development Corporation.”

After the meeting, Parry noted to Arroyo that both groups have some very similar development goals and policies, which Arroyo acknowledged.

Parry is the vice president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), which is officially calling for 100 percent affordable units, but only a maximum of around 70 to 75 units.

“The density is too high,” Parry said. “It’s not in concert with abutters or the immediate neighborhood.”

Everyone acknowledges that the developers met privately with abutters at least six times and discussed density, but opponents claim they never got new information.

The hiring of the lawyers was apparently intended to force more discussion. Osborne and Vincenty repeatedly declined to tell the Gazette exactly whom they represent. Parry said he is one of the clients, but that the SNA did not hire them. He said the complete list of possible clients is still being formed.

Vincenty is a former JP resident who once headed the Hyde Square Business Association and JP Community Centers, and ran unsuccessfully for Boston City Council and a House seat. Resident Ken Tangvik, a project supporter, called him out after the meeting, leaving Vincenty repeating, “Ken, I’m representing different people, that’s all.”

Asked if a lawsuit is possible, Osborne said, “It’s always an option. It’s not their first option.” He said the clients just want to get all the project information from the developers.

The clients’ main concerns are the possible “negative impacts” of density and traffic, Osborne said. The JPNDC has issued studies of both, but some residents question the numbers.

JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal told the Gazette that city agencies have said the density and size of the project are appropriate, and that there has already been extensive public process. “We feel we have tremendous support,” he said.

On the idea of much lower density, Thal said, “If somebody can show us a financially viable scenario that works, we’ll be happy to look at it.”

Resident Richard Heath hotly mocked the criticism of “change” in the neighborhood, saying it has already changed to become the home of rich condo owners. “This is a city. It’s crowded. It’s dense. It’s [full of] traffic. That’s why I love it,” he said.

Arroyo didn’t participate in the meeting, but had a tense discussion with Parry on Curtis Hall’s front steps afterward. That was after he told the Gazette that many e-mails he receives opposing the project show bigotry against minorities and people who live in public housing. Arroyo is Latino and grew up in public housing.

“You’ve been a gentleman,” he told Parry, but added, “You have pretenders in your group [the SNA]. There are people hiding behind you.” He added that he would tell his fellow Zoning Commissioners that.

Arroyo said one SNA member told him that he knew it was safe to move back to JP when he saw “two white women running up the street and no one was chasing them.” Parry acknowledged that the member “expresses himself too strongly” but indicated that’s not representative of the SNA.

“It pisses me off,” Arroyo said. “If I were a consultant to your group, I would advise you to get rid of those people. I don’t believe in the genuineness of your group. I can’t.”

Parry said he is hardly against affordable housing. “I can’t afford to buy my house right now,” he said. And, Parry said, there’s mistrust to go around.

“I’d like to believe [New Atlantic Development President Peter Roth] and the NDC, but I can’t,” Parry said.

Other business
The JPNC is seeking candidates for vacant seats in Areas A (Hyde/Jackson Square) and B (central JP). One candidate for Area B, Carlos Icaza of Greenough Avenue, introduced himself at the meeting. Icaza served on the original JPNC 20 years ago. A vote on his nomination is expected at next month’s JPNC meeting.

Interested residents 16 or older can contact Arroyo at nelson02130@yahoo.com.

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