Dental building finally gets reviews

November 6, 2009
By

John Ruch

FOREST HILLS—Years of controversy about the Bicon dental businesses at 501 Arborway appear to be nearing an end as city inspectors finally gave clear answers to neighbors who are concerned about mysterious, large-scale expansion of the building.

“I think we’re getting to closure,” said Jerry O’Connor, a neighbor of Bicon, whose official address is 123 Morton St. “Reality is catching up to where we thought things would be.”

A Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) review of landscaping and an Inspectional Services Department (ISD) citation of a business sign usually would not be big news. But with Bicon, getting to those simple steps took more than three years, a Boston City Council hearing and the secret behind-the-scenes involvement of a friend of Mayor Thomas Menino.

The saga was due mostly to ISD, which issued bewildering, sometimes contradictory rulings—several of them later invalidated by the city zoning Board of Appeal—between long periods of silence. Most recently, ISD Commissioner William Good said he forgot for a half-year to tell neighbors about the results of the latest ISD review of the property, despite the intense interest and promises he would respond within weeks.

It is clear that ISD did perform additional reviews during those six months. But most of the final steps, including outreach to the community and submission of plans to the BRA, happened only after the Gazette asked ISD for an update.

Bicon chief Dr. Vincent Morgan did not respond to the Gazette’s request for comment. Bicon also has declined to meet with its neighbors throughout the controversy. But, according to a letter Good sent to neighbors last week, Bicon has said it has “proactively” met with a BRA architect, among other actions.

O’Connor said the neighbors are not pleased with all of ISD’s recently announced decisions about Bicon, but are happy enough to get some clarity one way or another. “We may just declare victory and move on here,” he said.

“It sounds like the end is near,” said City Councilor John Tobin, who long supported the residents’ quest for information about Bicon. Opting for a football analogy, he said, “Is it in the end zone? No. But it’s a long field goal.”

Controversy at Bicon began in 2006, when the company proposed opening an Italian restaurant on its third floor—reportedly while applying for a “cafeteria” permit—and refused to meet with neighbors about it. O’Connor has asked for a commitment that the restaurant idea will not return, and it appears there finally may be closure on that issue.

“We can’t tell them what not to apply for,” said Colleen Keller, the JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. “You can apply for whatever you want. You can apply to build an airport in your front yard.”

But, Keller added, a restaurant at Bicon likely would never be approved. “The property has been flagged [by ISD],” she said. “I don’t see [a restaurant proposal] ever getting by.”

In an Oct. 21 letter to the neighbors, Good said that Bicon’s property-owning company, Debbie LLC, informed ISD that it “has no plans for a public restaurant on the 3rd floor.”

Good also continued to be apologetic about the latest quirks in ISD’s process. “In the conclusion of your [recent] letter [to ISD and the Mayor’s Office] you express your opinion about and your frustration with the process to date,” Good wrote. “I respect your opinion and, in fact, I agree with some of the point[s] you make.”

“We’re trying to have a more inclusive review process,” Keller said.

Tobin said the need of a zoning variance for the sign is particularly key because it “forces a conversation and forces [Bicon] to the table.” He said it is likely Bicon will want neighborhood support for some future property changes, so good relations are important. “Many people, myself included, are appreciative of the investment Bicon has made [in the area],” Tobin said. “Instead of living for today, I’d ask them to think of the future.”

Tobin said he remains concerned that it took years of neighborhood and City Council effort to get answers about the zoning code, which is supposed to provide clear guidelines and equal process. “Where’s the predictability?” he asked.

New findings

After the restaurant controversy, residents began asking how Bicon had made major changes to its building—including adding a third floor—with no public review, despite sitting adjacent to a residential area and a state parkway. Bicon, a company that specializes in surgically implanting artificial teeth, has a complex business that includes a dental practice, worldwide training courses and, apparently, off-site manufacturing.

Responses from ISD have been confusing at best. ISD has variously cited Bicon for violations; said there never were violations at all; and said violations were fixed with no explanation of how. ISD’s definitions of the property’s uses have changed several times. At one point, ISD denied the existence of training courses being held at Bicon, even though they were advertised on the company’s web site.

Some required reviews, such as Boston Parks Commission approval, happened only years after construction, when ISD acknowledged “oversights” in its inspections of the property. Meanwhile, Bicon officials consistently have refused to meet with neighbors, apparently because the process never officially required them to. One neighbor later summed up the process by saying it was like being in “Alice in Wonderland.”

In the hopes of getting some kind of clarity, the neighbors eventually cut their questions down to a few key issues: a large sign Bicon erected on the Arborway; the legal status of a laboratory in the building; and property-line buffering elements, including an uncovered and sometimes overflowing Dumpster.

Good has now provided answers to all of those issues. In short, the lab is OK, the sign is not and the BRA will help Bicon come up with better buffering.

The sign is an example of the confusing ISD decisions over the years. At first, city inspectors said there was nothing wrong with the sign. Later, they cited the sign as illegally erected without a permit. After nothing happened for months, ISD surprised residents by saying that the sign had been legal all along and that the previous citation was invalid. Apparently, that decision was based on the incorrect assumption that a previous owner had built the sign.

Now ISD is once again saying the sign is illegal. Bicon was cited for the sign on July 22, shortly after a private meeting among neighbors and ISD officials. Three months later, the sign is still there, but a fix is coming soon, Good wrote in his letter.

“The business has the options of…removing the sign, requesting a variance to maintain the existing sign or submitting plans for a new sign,” Good wrote. “I have been advised that they have had conversations with ISD staff about the options available and we expect action by the end of this month [October].”

The lab use was another item that ISD had variously declared legal and illegal at different times. ISD now considers it to be a legal use. That decision appears to be based on language. At first, ISD ruled that the use is a “clinical lab,” which is illegal. Now, ISD has ruled that it is actually an “accessory lab” that supports the dental office, which is legal.

O’Connor said he disagrees with that interpretation, but is willing to let it go.

As for the Dumpster and other buffering issues, Good wrote that a city inspector visited the site at least five times in recent months. That led Bicon to submit plans for improving the buffering, enclosing the Dumpster and adding some parking spaces.

It is unclear when ISD received those plans, but they were only recently passed along to the BRA for design review. “[The BRA] got it only last week,” Keller said.

Keller arranged for the first direct community input into Bicon plans. On Oct. 26, O’Connor and abutting property owner David Vaughn met with BRA officials to go over the plans and make comments on it.

“I think it was productive,” Keller said.

BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker said that BRA architect Michael Cannizzo and other staff members will visit the Bicon site as well.

“The BRA seems to be taking a good look at this,” O’Connor said. “Things are going pretty much as promised.”