City Council looks at Bicon

December 14, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

FOREST HILLS—The city’s top building inspection officials were called before a Boston City Council hearing in Jamaica Plain last week to explain their permitting of mysterious and controversial construction going on for years at the Bicon dental building at 501 Arborway.

But they largely restated their position that the building is properly permitted, while local residents raised still more questions. The hearing of the Economic Development and Planning Committee, held Dec. 3 at Franklin Park Villas next door to Bicon, was continued so officials can answer all of the questions in coming weeks.

William Good, commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), and ISD building division head Gary Moccia acknowledged one problem at Bicon. Its large streetfront sign was improperly placed within the Arborway’s park district, in what Moccia called an ISD “oversight.” Bicon has been cited for the sign.

The hearing was called by local City Councilor John Tobin. He said the lack of community process on years of major renovations to the building “doesn’t sound or smell right.”

Tobin called for a moratorium on the construction. Moccia said that isn’t possible because it is permitted work, but offered to conduct another site inspection at a date of Tobin’s choice.

“This is the last place I want to be tonight,” Tobin said, explaining he met previously with Bicon chief Dr. Vincent Morgan and asked for a private meeting with concerned residents.

“That request was denied, so thus, we sit here tonight,” Tobin said. Residents, he said, “deserve a quality of life second to none…[and] a relationship with businesses second to none. I think it’s disrespectful to the neighborhood to not want to have that kind of relationship.”

Bicon official Craig Morgan, who did not identify his exact position with the company, said in testimony that he took offense at Tobin “suggesting that we’re not following the rules.”

“From our position, this building…was built as of right with proper permitting. No variances were needed,” Craig Morgan said. “We were not required to go and engage anyone for anything.”

“We would be happy to address any concerns or any violations brought to [our] attention,” he said, adding that Bicon will deal with the cited sign.

The hearing format gave Bicon officials little time to discuss details. Craig Morgan declined to comment further to the Gazette after the meeting.

Bicon drew local attention last year when it did need to go through a public process. The company tried to create an Italian restaurant with a beer and wine license on the building’s third floor. The plan was shot down amid neighborhood concerns and complaints about lack of community notice. Tobin’s office said Bicon was seeking only a company cafeteria permit from ISD for the space, while also applying for the beer and wine license.

A community meeting at that time grew heated. At the City Council hearing last week, Tobin and residents repeatedly said Bicon is a good business in a handsome building that should remain. But some personality clashes are clearly part of the equation.

The restaurant controversy exposed years of other concerns about the building and its use. Most of them were restated by residents at the City Council hearing.

Resident Gail Sullivan, a well-known local architect, questioned how Bicon could conduct major renovations of the building—including adding a third floor—without Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) design review or similar processes.

Another common question is why ISD ruled that the property should not get additional review due to its proximity to the Arborway, a historic parkway. ISD was unable to explain why it ruled that part of the lot was covered by the park overlay district in the 1980s, but apparently isn’t anymore.

Adding to the confusion, Moccia said ISD now acknowledges that the Bicon sign is within the review zone, after resident David Vaughn pointed it out.

“The only protected area on that property is the corner piece of the property where the sign is,” Moccia said. “That was an oversight of ISD.”

If Bicon keeps the sign, it will need Boston Parks Commission review.

“We generally don’t like signs on parkways,” Parks Commission Executive Secretary Brian McLaughlin told residents and the Gazette after the hearing.

Bicon’s identity and use of the building are other large issues. Bicon is a cutting-edge oral surgery company that implants individual false teeth into patients’ jaws as a permanent alternative to old-fashioned dentures.

But Bicon has various other divisions, including a dental lab; implant manufacturing and distribution; and the Bicon Institute, a training program that offers accredited courses.

“[ISD] shoehorned that building into the definition of ‘dentist’s office,’” complained resident Jerry O’Connor, adding that all of these uses should have received public review under zoning code.

Good said the building’s “primary usage is office space,” which is permitted under code. Moccia added that all of the renovations are “continuation of an existing use,” which can include a “doctor’s office.”

Moccia is the inspector who controversially ruled that there is no evidence the Bicon Institute exists, because he saw no training taking place at the site. Extensive Bicon Institute courses are offered on the company’s web site and described in dental industry publications.

“We’re a factual office,” Moccia said, explaining ISD can only rule on what it sees on-site.

“All uses in that building are allowed,” Craig Morgan emphasized in his testimony. But he did not list or describe those uses.

In brief testimony that was cut short at the end of the hearing, Bicon official Jennifer Peterson said that residents are “trying to define us as a dental clinic. We’re a dental office.” That distinction may make a difference in the zoning code.

Residents also raised various quality-of-life complaints about the business and its construction.

The strangest were claims that Bicon has a speaker system installed in its parking lot that has been known to play classical music in the middle of the night. The Gazette did not see any visual evidence of such a system on a walk around the lot.

One resident played a tape of an ear-piercing shriek he said was a brick-cutting saw operating at Bicon early on a Saturday morning, as heard from his bedroom. The tape player was turned up and amplified through a City Council microphone, but seemed like it would be annoying at any audible volume.

Other complaints included a frequently overflowing trash dumpster and a pile of assorted construction debris and materials in a corner of the parking lot. The Gazette observed both situations after the hearing.

In the end, there were more questions than answers. There was not even agreement on how long construction has been going on at Bicon. Neighbors say about four years. Craig Morgan said the work began in May, 2005. Neighbors replied that is only the current phase.

At the beginning of the hearing, City Councilor Sam Yoon said neighborhood questions about the site “are clearly legitimate.” And at the end, committee chair Councilor Bill Linehan said he hopes Bicon at least will address “relations issues” with the community.

Tobin later told the Gazette that the next steps are getting written responses to the various concerns from ISD and Bicon, along with another ISD inspection.