Montebello Rd. residents oppose development

October 7, 2010
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Concessions, study results unveiled at meeting

PARKSIDE—Controversy continues to follow the redevelopment of the former Barbara McInnis House at 461 Walnut Ave. on the corner of Montebello Road, despite many meetings, attempts at compromises and studies made by developers in response to neighbors’ expressed concerns.

The former Barbara McInnis House, across the street from White Stadium in Franklin Park, would house 20 respite care beds on the ground floor along with the 30 single-room occupancy (SRO) units on the two upper floors.

In an Oct. 4 community meeting at the site, the developers, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), along with owners Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), announced a reduction in the number of efficiency-style SRO units, from 33 to 30, as requested by neighbors.

But Montebello Road neighbors, most of whom chose not to attend the Oct. 4 meeting, have expressed strong objections to the project in other recent meetings, letters to the editor of the Gazette and at a meeting with Gazette staff at one Montebello resident’s home on Oct. 3.

Concessions and adjustments made to the project by developers, based on community input also include: an updated design of the parking lot, which would have an exit to Walnut Avenue, allowing traffic to avoid abutting one-way Montebello Road, and allowing for a possible eventual expansion of the lot.

At the Oct. 4 community meeting, Robert Taube, executive director of BHCHP, said the development team is committed to expanding the parking lot by three spaces after 12 months, if the neighborhood deems it necessary.

Lyndia Downie, executive director of Pine Street Inn (PSI), the agency that would be the housing services provider and property manager, addressed concerns raised by a recent WBUR piece, “Homelessness On The Decline In Boston,” by Monica Brady-Myerov, which talked about a new model for placing the formerly homeless into housing, called “Housing First.”

Housing First places chronically homeless individuals into housing without screening, then works with them to get and stay sober, taking medication and staying healthy. Downie was interviewed for that piece.

At the community meeting, Downie assured attendees that while the proposed facility would provide “permanent supportive housing for people who are medically vulnerable and homeless,” 461 Walnut Ave. would not be a Housing First facility.

This is due in large part to the funding that is expected to contribute to the running of the facility, Downie said. The SROs would be subsidized by Boston Housing Authority (BHA) project-based Section 8 vouchers. The use of these city vouchers means potential residents would come from the BHA waiting list, making them subject to CORI (criminal), SORI (sexual offender) and credit checks. Additionally, PSI would conduct a second level of screening to ensure a resident’s needs could safely be met within the structure and services that would be provided at 461 Walnut Ave.

In order to qualify for these vouchers, potential residents would need a source of income and agree to extensive house rules, Downie said.

“I wouldn’t expect this to change,” Downie concluded, adding that, in order to maintain its funding, the facility would undergo yearly audits to ensure it would be meeting all federal and local requirements.

When Moira Meehan, a resident of Montebello Road, said that she’d like to have a signed agreement between JPNDC, BHCHP and the neighbors that would codify the number of SROs and tenant selection policy, Kyle Robidoux, community organizing assistant director at JPNDC, promptly agreed.

Two 24-hour traffic studies of abutting Montebello Road, presented by Ed Hesford from the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), showed “minimal volume” on that street. He said he was “not very concerned with the added volume” that the proposed facility would bring in. When neighbors raised questions regarding sightlines for the proposed curb cut on Walnut Avenue, which would allow traffic to bypass Montebello Road, Hesford said it was “not [an] unusual” configuration.

Robidoux said that all deliveries and pick-ups would be scheduled as to avoid peak hours on Montebello Road, and noted that most traffic to the facility would be in the form of large vans, which would have no problem maneuvering inside the parking lot in the current site design.

Opposition
Most of the residents of Montebello Road oppose the project and show no signs of relenting, even after the community meeting on Oct. 4 and a private meeting with BHCHP and JPNDC on Sept. 28, facilitated by City Councilor Chuck Turner.

“We’re committed to fighting it, committed to doing the right thing for the neighborhood,” Meehan said in a separate meeting at a Montebello Road home on Oct. 3, to which the Gazette was invited.

At the Sept. 28 meeting, Montebello Road residents reportedly presented a statement to JPNDC and BHCHP asking for 1. the project to be halted, 2. a project alternative that understands and respects the context of the neighborhood, and “allows for a process of community input and involvement” and 3. a reassessment of the project’s relationship to the future of Egleston Square. They also asked for a response from the developers, according to a copy of the statement provided to the Gazette the following day.

Not having received a direct reply by Oct. 4, most of the opposing neighbors chose not to attend the community meeting that evening. JPNDC and BHCHP included a two-page response to the statement in materials handed out to attendees.

In their response, the developers said that they “intend to proceed as planned,” noting that repeating the community process would not “fundamentally alter the project, provide an additional level of review or allow for the dissemination of additional information beyond what has already been shared.”

“Stopping [the project] at this point would be a mistake,” Taube said at the meeting. “We didn’t come to this project arbitrarily,” he added.

Kevin Batt, a resident of nearby Peter Parley Road, said, “I’ve seen several compromises on behalf of JPNDC… it’s appalling” to try and stop the project when this is “the best possible team” to execute it.

Since the developers started engaging the community in June, JPNDC has arranged for, or been present at, 11 community meetings, according to the materials handed out on Oct. 4. It has also created a web site for the project that publicizes Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) meetings and documents and meeting notes, organized tours of the Bowditch House, another PSI facility in JP and sent out weekly project updates to an extensive community e-mail list.

But Montebello Road residents insist that “the only way we understand to have an influence on the project is to stop it,” Jason Heinbeck told the Gazette on Oct 3.

“Their meetings are a waste of time,” Demetra Theoharis said, echoing the sentiment expressed by neighbors that JPNDC and BHCHP are not listening to their concerns.

“They’re talking at us,” Mark Hohenschau said.

They need to “adopt a new paradigm of listening and not dictating,” Elaine Garofoli added.

JPNDC has “done a good job of making the opposition seem a group of small petty people,” Meehan said, though she added that “there’s a lot of outreach right now, [which] indicates that they do care.”

State Rep. Liz Malia said at the Oct. 4 community meeting that vacant properties don’t add to the value of one’s property. It’s time to “get past the fears people have” and go forward with development, she said.

Jaime Rodriguez, also a Montebello Road resident, said at the Oct. 3 meeting, “The ‘power elite’ wants to push us into this project as it is… they want it. We have to eat it. We’re tired of that.”

“Whatever goes there [at 461 Walnut Ave.], we want it to succeed,” Heinbeck said. “We care, but we want a say… We’re a part of this.”

“We’re just looking for a positive outcome for our neighborhood,” Kate Peppard, another resident, said.

Evelyn Friedman, cabinet chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, a representative from City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley’s office, state Rep. Malia and City Councilor Chuck Turner, as well as Colleen Keller, JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, were present at the Oct. 4 meeting.

JPNDC and BHCHP are scheduled to appear before the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s zoning committee on Thursday, Oct. 14, 7 pm, at the Farnsworth House, located at 90 South St.

Copies of all the mentioned JPNDC, BHCHP and PSI documents are available for public viewing either at the Egleston Square library or through the JPNDC.

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.

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 a Sept. 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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