Respite care facility draws controversy

September 10, 2010
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PARKSIDE—Supporters and critics of a proposed new Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) facility at 461 Walnut Ave. voiced very different opinions at a community hearing on Sept. 1 about the project and its impact on the neighborhood.

Supporters praised the work BHCHP does and its value to Jamaica Plain and the City of Boston, while concerned neighbors raised questions about possible traffic disturbances and unforeseen required zoning variances, and passed around two conflicting petitions.

The former Barbara McInnis House site, across the street from White Stadium in Franklin Park, would house 20 respite care beds on one floor and 33 efficiency-style transitional housing units on the two upper floors. BHCHP housed its 90-bed respite care McInnis House at the Walnut Avenue site until it moved to larger quarters in the South End in 2008.

Before BHCHP opened McInnis house in 1993, 461 Walnut Ave. was the Stadium Manor Nursing Home, which operated on the site as far back as 1980.

Moderated by John Fitzgerald of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the scheduled one-and-a-half-hour small project review meeting at the Walnut Avenue site ran an hour longer than anticipated and had roughly 100 attendees, well outside the scope of the 60 chairs set out. The extra hour was due to the outspokenness of attendees.

Kate Peppard, a resident of adjacent Montebello Road, was the one responsible for the petitions. While she and the “whole neighborhood [were] sold” on the concept for the project, she said, once she realized the renovations would need variances, she has changed her mind. She has since been very active in opposing the project, attending many community meetings.

A “small but vocal minority” of the neighborhood is strongly against the current project, according to Francesca Fordiani, a Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) member who lives in the neighborhood, and who has also attended several meetings. She said she is strongly in favor of it, and, “Generally the neighbors are more than welcoming.” She personally would like “to see JP continue to be [part of] the solution to homelessness.”

Plans have been submitted to the City’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), which will determine exactly which variances are needed. The project is expected to need four variances: for adding a proposed trash outbuilding, for its proximity to Franklin Park, for its outdated zoning occupancy, and for reducing the off-street parking spaces to 19 from the required 33.

“Our vision for the building was informed by our experience in how well people do” off the streets, Robert Taube, executive director of BHCHP, said at the meeting. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) and Pine Street Inn (PSI), BHCHP’s partners in the venture, are “help[ing] us do something wonderful,” he added.

Building plans
Since 2008, when the McInnis House moved to the South End, 461 Walnut Ave. has been vacant. Now, BHCHP, the owner of the property, has teamed up with JPNDC and PSI to renovate the building and offer more services. JPNDC would develop the property, and Paul Sullivan Housing, an affiliate of PSI, would act as housing service provider and property manager, according to Andrew Winter, real estate director at JPNDC.

The permanent housing component would have 33 single-room occupancy (SRO) units with kitchen and bath facilities and support services for chronically homeless, medically vulnerable single adults. A live-in manager would occupy a 34th unit, Winter said.

There would be 10-17 staff anticipated at any one time for the whole building, according to materials handed out at the meeting. In its previous incarnation, the McInnis House had 100 staff at the site over a 24-hour period.

This new facility is meant to be a lower-intensity care unit than the current McInnis House and its 108 beds, Taube said.

Changes to the property would include the reduction of parking spaces to a proposed 19 off-street spaces, the erection of a 96 square-foot trash enclosure on the first floor, which would be screened by a fence, and extensive landscaping and development of green space on the property, including a vegetable garden and tree plantings on Iffley Road and Walnut Avenue, Nick Elton, architect for the project, said.

He tried to address all the concerns brought up at previous meetings, he said. The addition of the garbage shed would allow for trash collection at more convenient times, as opposed to the previous window of 4 to 6 AM, as well as hiding the dumpster. The proposed fence would hide both the shed and most of the parking lot from view on Montebello Road.

The building would also have a facelift to minimize its institutional look, Elton said.

The project aims to increase security and accessibility in the building and neighborhood by separating entrances and vehicle accesses and creating separate open and green spaces for residents and patients. Elton said that these steps would reduce the impact of deliveries on the neighbors.

Further, they are aiming for a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a standard showing that a structure was designed and built using a number of green strategies.

After the ISD has determined what variances are required, the JPNDC can choose to apply through the City’s Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) or it can file an application through the BRA under Chapter 121A, which looks to be the more likely option, Richard Thal, executive director of JPNDC, told the Gazette in a phone interview.

“The more you can know about everything, the easier it will be to run the project,” Thal said, as one of the reasons why JPNDC will likely file Chapter 121A.

While the community involvement process would be nearly identical under either option, the BRA board considers city-wide objectives in its deliberations more than the ZBA does, Thal said, which would include promoting solutions for homelessness.

Another difference would be the variance decision: chapter 121A would settle all the variances as a whole, whereas the ZBA would consider each variance individually.

The 121A process would also reach an agreement regarding the taxation of the property, whereas the ZBA route would not.

JPNDC presented the project to the JPNC zoning committee earlier this year, while still at a conceptual stage. They have another meeting tentatively scheduled for Sept. 23, before their Chapter 121A hearing with the BRA.

Resident concerns
Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Boston’s public health commissioner, and a resident of the neighborhood, said at the meeting, that, as commissioner, she thinks JPNDC, PSI and BHCHP are “good institutional partners” for the neighborhood, and are “compassionate, caring folks.”

“There is a desperate need for supportive housing” for people trying to make the transition out of homelessness, she added, saying that “supportive housing really works,” and that “residents do very well” in supportive SROs.

She said that these organizations have “dedicated staff who are well-trained to do the work.”

As a private resident of nearby Robeson Street, she added that “the diversity—ethnic, economic—of the neighborhood is one of its strengths,” and that she “feel[s] blessed that we’ve been able to encompass the wide variety of humanity here.”

Jason Heinbeck, a resident of Montebello Road, said he was worried about possible density and traffic changes.

“There’s a certain scale here that works” for the residential neighborhood, as determined by zoning laws, he said, and variances would deviate from that.

Walter Pollard, of Walnut Avenue, said that JPDNC and its partners are “trying to short-circuit the process” and “trying to go outside the law” by acquiring variances.

Thal noted that nearly all building projects in the city require variances, as so many building are so old, or predate current building codes. Even simple work on a three-family house would require some kind of variance, he said.

“What doesn’t require variances?” Thal asked. “It’s very typical.”
Peppard said that, while the neighbors have previously had a “very positive experience with McInnis House,” and “feel very strongly that these services in our neighborhood is a good thing,” according to her, the neighborhood is “not in favor of the project as it’s designed.” She added that “all the zoning variances that were required were never made clear to us [the neighbors].”

Heinbeck said he disapproved of the expected need for variances, saying that the neighborhood was not made aware of their need when the meetings first started.

“If we don’t know what we’re approving, how can we approve it?” Heinbeck said. “They’ve far exceeded the stress on Montebello Road that residents are willing to deal with,” he added.

ISD has not yet made its decision regarding the project, precisely naming the required variances. The reliefs mentioned are the ones JPNDC expects to need, according the materials handed out at the meeting.

“It disheartens me a great deal to oppose this project,” Peppard said of the possible variances needed, adding that the neighbors “just want an honest dialogue.”

According to Kyle Robidoux, community organizing assistant director at JPNDC, that organization has had at least six community meetings, knocked on 75 doors and handed out over 2,200 flyers regarding this project.

“We’ve tried to be inclusive,” Winter said.

“We’re committed to making ourselves available to the community,” Robidoux said, noting that the JPNDC is very willing to arrange for another meeting later this month, if the community feels it’s necessary.

Mirna Rodriguez, also of Montebello Road, said at the meeting that she thinks the facility “won’t have enough staff” to care for 33 SRO residents who might be “mentally ill” or “level one sex offenders.”

It’s “apples and oranges” compared to the previous incarnation, she said, when 461 Walnut Ave. “was 90 beds for people who were sick.”

“I don’t want them peeing on the corner of my house,” Rodriguez added.

Barbara Trevisan, a representative of PSI, told the Gazette in a phone interview that PSI performs CORI and background checks on every resident, and that there are “no known sex offenders in any of our residences.”

She also said that while PSI does “work with a very frail population,” they have 24-hour staffing and “case managers that work very closely with tenants to connect them with services in community.” PSI also has “very strict policies” regarding drugs and alcohol.

Kosta Demos, a JP resident who is currently running for the District Six city council seat vacated by John Tobin, asked the neighbors to “give [the project] the benefit of the doubt… [as it will] fit seamlessly into the neighborhood.”

Edward ‘Red’ Burrows, member of the JPNC, said he was a 10-year SRO resident in Kenmore Square and came to the meeting to show his support for the project. In a slightly choked voice, he said such housing “get[s] people off the street who might make it.”

Teresa Doyle, another Montebello Road resident, in a prepared letter to the BRA, stated that the proposed project would negatively affect the value of her home, and that “even an institution that does good work… [can] negatively affect the quality of life on the neighborhood.”

Homes on Montebello Road have roughly tripled in value since 1993, when McInnis House first opened its doors, according to the City of Boston’s online home assessment website. This is well within the range of JP and the City as a whole, and better than neighborhoods such as Allston/Brighton, which averaged doubling in price in the same time frame.

Fordiani said that in the past Montebello Road was considered an informal dividing line between where it was safe or not to live. It had a clear reputation for open drug dealing when she moved in about 15 years ago. Now, she said, it is “definitely not a street that’s on the edge anymore—and it was. It’s not the street it was 10 or 15 years ago.”

Fordiani said that “affordable housing has seemed to stabilize the neighborhood, not bring it down… The before and after is dramatic and stunning.”

Carlos Icaza, president of the Jamaica Plain Business and Professional Association and resident of Greenough Avenue, in Sumner Hill, where PSI has its biggest facility nearby on Green Street, said that “8 out of 10 residents don’t even know it’s there, it’s so well-run.” The presence of affordable housing in the neighborhood “has not affected our property values at all,” he said.

Also present at the meeting was Hassan Williams, who is challenging Sonia Chang-Diaz in the Second Suffolk District race for state senate. After proposing parking work-arounds like shuttling for employees if the 19-space lot turned out to be too small, he voiced his support: “I admire the strength of this project.”

Chang-Diaz, state Rep. Liz Malia, City Councilor Chuck Turner and City Councilor At-Large Felix Arroyo all had representatives present at the meeting. Malia joined the meeting in person after it had already started.

No other organization in the state provides respite care for the homeless, so McInnis House, named after a JP nurse, regularly operates at capacity, according to materials handed out at the meeting.

Medical respite care is the term used for short-term medical and recuperative services for homeless people too sick to stay in shelters but not sick enough for a hospital stay.

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