CAC presses city for Roxbury transport plan

April 3, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

Open meetings, lack of members still issues

JACKSON SQ.—Cross-neighborhood coordination, finding new members and the continuing presence of the press at its meetings were the main focuses of the March 26 meeting of the Jackson Square citizens advisory committee (CAC).

Only six CAC members attended the meeting—three from Roxbury and three from Jamaica Plain.

At the meeting, the CAC called for the city to ensure transportation improvements planned for Jackson Square and the nearby Roxbury neighborhood of Highland Park are synced up. That call comes as developers start to plan public infrastructure improvements for the area, including streetscape improvements meant to improve traffic flow.

The Gazette was not barred from or asked to leave the meeting, as it had been at two previous meetings.

A major redevelopment project for Jackson Square—including hundreds of residential units, thousands of square feet of retail space, a community center and new recreation facilities—has been in the works for years. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has broad oversight of the project and the CAC is an advisory body meant to provide community input to the BRA staff.

The March 26 meeting was notable for the presence of BRA Deputy Director Muhammad Ali-Salaam. Ali-Salaam was actively involved in the community process about the redevelopment of Jackson Square early in the decade, before Jackson Square Partners (JSP) was designated as the developer. BRA staffer Rodney Sinclair has since taken over as project manager.

“I came because I got a sense that the CAC was very upset about the process and a sense [that there was some confusion] over this issue of Open Meeting Laws and whatever. I came by to see if I could be of some help,” Ali-Salaam said in a Gazette phone interview after the meeting.

At the meeting, Ali-Salaam recommended that the CAC maintain an open process. “I have been doing this for a long time—too long. I have never been part of a process that is not open,” he said.

At the meeting, Colleen Keller from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services told the CAC, “You need to take responsibility that you are representing the public.”

Coordination

Jen Faigel from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC)—one of the developers in JSP—presented some details of JSP’s preliminary plans for public infrastructure and streetscape improvements in the neighborhood around the intersection of Centre Street and Columbus Avenue.

JSP hopes to begin public infrastructure work by this fall.

But some members of the CAC said they felt something was missing. “I think looking at this in a vacuum is just not going to cut it,” said Roxbury resident and CAC member Celia Grant.

As Jackson Square plans have been slogging forward over the years, the Highland Park neighborhood—on the other side of Columbus Avenue from the Jackson Square T Station and the Southwest Corridor Park—has been the subject of its own transportation study.

That study began in 2007 as a result of plans to redevelop Bartlett Yard, a former MBTA bus yard near Dudley Square in Roxbury, CAC co-chair and Roxbury resident Rodney Singleton told the Gazette.

“We have been waiting for a very long time” for the final results of the Highland Park study, said Singleton, who sits on the community advisory group for that project.

The Highland Park study process is run by the city Department of Neighborhood Development (DND).

DND spokesperson Kerry O’Brien told the Gazette the Highland Park Transportation Study is due out by mid-April, but might not be available in time for the next CAC meeting—scheduled for April 8—when CAC members said they hope to review it. [See JP Agenda.]

“We just want to make sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” Singleton said.

The Highland Park study and the design work for the Jackson Square transportation improvements are both being conducted by the transportation-planning firm Howard-Stein-Hudson Associates.

CAC membership

The Jackson Square CAC now has only about 11 active members, Sinclair said at the meeting. The group, as it was originally constituted, had 22 members, he said.

That presents a technical problem because the CAC originally decided that 11 members would constitute a quorum, Sinclair said. But it also means the CAC is missing important voices, he said.

The group is particularly wanting for voices from the Jackson Square business community, youth representatives and a representative from the JP-based bicycle advocacy group Bikes Not Bombs (BNB), he said.

A former BNB staffer used to sit on the CAC, but the position has not been filled since she left. Having someone on the CAC focused on non-vehicular transit issues “I thought was very helpful to the group,” Sinclair said.

CAC members recommended that Sinclair, who is responsible for convening the group, reach out to local youth programs Teen Empowerment and the 826 Boston writing center to try to find a youth representative.

Sinclair said he is also hoping to find representatives from the nearby Dimock Community Health Center, the Roxbury Neighborhood Council, and the Academy Homes housing development on Columbus Ave. Annie Russell, president of the board of directors at New Academy, the Washington Street housing development where the meeting took place, volunteered at the meeting to join the CAC as a New Academy representative.

Press

The question of barring the press coverage of Jackson Square CAC meetings has been controversial in recent months.

The Gazette was asked to leave two CAC meetings it attempted to report on in January and February. In January, the CAC voted unanimously that the Gazette reporter should leave the meeting. In February, Spencer asked the Gazette to leave following a heated conversation on the issue.

On March 16, CAC co-chairs Spencer and Singleton met with Gazette editor Sandee Storey to discuss media coverage of CAC meetings.

At the beginning of the March 26 CAC meeting, Spencer proposed that the issue be tabled until the next CAC meeting and that the Gazette be allowed to stay and report.

She said she did not want to spend time discussing the issue because she feared it would “take over the meeting.”

CAC member Dan Cruz voiced opposition to that proposal. “This is a point of contention and until we resolve it, we should keep [the press] out of the meeting,” he said.

A wide-ranging conversation ensued, touching on subjects including press freedom, cultural differences between JP and Roxbury and the CAC’s responsibility to the communities it represents.

Cruz said the press should have full access to CAC agendas, minutes and attendance records. He was concerned, he said, that information will “get into the Gazette before it gets to the developer and the BRA.” Reporters should not “be privy to our thought process before we vote on things,” he said.

Developers and BRA staff often attend CAC meetings. In at least one meeting the Gazette attended, JPNDC staff members sat in even though they were not scheduled to make a presentation to the CAC.

Cruz, a Roxbury resident, also noted that communities of color have historically had dubious relationships with the press. “To be quite honest, the press has never been a friend to us,” he said at the meeting.

In a post-meeting interview, he expanded on that. “A lot of good things go on in our community. I think newspapers don’t do enough good work,” he said. He said the Boston Banner’s coverage of Roxbury is a notable exception.

The Gazette reporter was the only identified member of the press at the meeting.

At meetings the Gazette has attended, and particularly at the most recent one, the most vocal opponents to the Gazette’s presence have been from Roxbury, but Cruz said that’s because the JP side lacks courage.

“I don’t know the pulse of everyone from JP, but I do know that when [press] are not in the room folks aren’t necessarily happy to have you in the room. Folks from Roxbury are more willing to speak out,” he said.

Cruz said he would prefer the meetings to be open to the public but closed to the press. Legally, there is no distinction between the press and the public.

Not all CAC members were on the same page as Cruz at the meeting.

“If we want to discuss things for the entire community [our meetings] have to be open,” CAC member Red Burrows said.

One point of contention was the legally unresolved issue of whether CAC meetings are subject to the Open Meeting Law. Under that state law, meetings of governmental bodies are required to be open to the public. In two other cases, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office—which is responsible for enforcing the Open Meeting Law—has issued opinions saying meetings of BRA-convened committees should be open. The BRA has issued a legal opinion disputing that, but the issue has not been tried in court.

Ali-Salaam said at the meeting that the BRA’s opinion is based on its recognition of the CAC as an advisory board that is not legally responsible for its decisions.

“The CACs give advice. They have no legal burden. They can’t be subpoenaed,” he said. “The [BRA’s] legal opinion is constructed to differentiate between the BRA board and the CAC as an advisory body.”

Sinclair said that while the BRA legal opinion is that CAC meetings can be closed, it generally recommends that CACs hold open meetings. “It’s a legal opinion versus a social obligation,” he said. At previous meetings Sinclair said that other CACs he worked with held closed meetings.

Speaking to the Gazette, Ali-Salaam said that he could understand, from personal experience, why some people are dubious of the press. “The press is the press. There are certain elements in the press I find offensive if not downright dangerous…[but] to the extent that you get the facts right, you perform an important public service,” he said.

The audiences for community newspapers “are specific enough that people can get the facts by rolling down their windows and shouting across the alley. At the end of the day people will find out if you got it wrong,” he said.

At the meeting, Burrows—who sits on the CAC as a representative from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council—expressed similar sentiments. “If there are mistakes, we will all stand up and say [the press] got it wrong,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, the CAC briefly discussed being able to sit in on meetings between the city and the developers.

“We were previously invited to go and sit in the back at the city agency meetings and observe,” Spencer told the Gazette. She observed similar meetings when sitting on the Blessed Sacrament CAC, an advisory committee for another JPNDC development project in JP.

It is helpful, she said, for the CAC to have as much information as possible.

At the meeting, Sinclair said the Jackson Square CAC would not be allowed to attend an April 1 meeting between the BRA and the developer, but he would try to make sure the CAC is invited to future meetings.

Letter to the editor

In the course of the conversation about press coverage, the CAC discussed a letter Singleton and Spencer submitted to the Gazette, published in the March 20 issue. An early version of the letter circulated among CAC members contained a sentence and a phrase that were not in the version published in the Gazette.

In discussing the letter, Cruz and Spencer, who made the changes to the letter, described the removal of those lines as Gazette “censorship.”

Speaking to the Gazette after the meeting, Spencer said she later told the CAC that she did not agree with the accusations of censorship. “I didn’t see it as censorship, but I wasn’t prepared to scream about it at
the meeting,” she said.

She said she had forwarded her exchanges with the Gazette to the CAC. “I thought I made it clear that I volunteered to change the letter, and Sandee had not said she wouldn’t print it.”

Storey said Spencer’s description of what happened is accurate, adding that she had not even recommended specific changes to Spencer and Singleton’s letter.

That letter sparked a long-standing controversy about the level of community support for and advisability of plans to build a new permanent home for the Kelly ice-skating rink in Jackson Square. Many in Roxbury say that the nearby Melnea Cass rink should be refurbished as an ice rink and building a whole new rink is a waste of resources, and that sentiment was expressed in the letter. A response from Friends of the Kelly Rink to comments about the rink in the first letter is published in this issue of the Gazette. [See Letters to the Editor.] Mike Frank and Steve Glickel from Friends of the Kelly Rink,\ attended the March 26 CAC meeting. The issue of the rink, which is part of JSP member Urban Edge’s development plans, did not come up.