The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) has been under fire for its plan to deal away the remaining Blessed Sacrament campus buildings for expensive housing. But critics can count the JPNDC itself as among those unhappy with the plan.
“Would it be anybody’s first choice [who works at] the NDC? No,” said JPNDC Executive Director Richard Thal during a Gazette interview with top JPNDC staff members at the nonprofit developer’s Germania Street office last week.
Facing their biggest public relations crisis in years, the JPNDC officials explained why their nonprofit—with a mission to preserve affordable housing—is forced to make the deal, and how it flubbed community outreach. They also described Blessed Sacrament as sucking away money that the organization could spend on other efforts, including a clear interest in developing affordable housing on MBTA-owned property in Forest Hills.
“If JPNDC is losing money, there’s less to put into other programs,” said JPNDC fundraising and communications director Sally Swenson.
“It will shore up our finances and stop the bleeding and free up staff time involved in figuring out what to do with it,” said Thal of the deals to put market-rate and luxury housing in two Blessed Sacrament buildings.
But JPNDC’s pleas of financial realism run up against its own impressive successes as a nonprofit community development corporation (CDC) creating housing and supporting small businesses. It turned the gigantic, decaying Brewery Complex on Amory Street into a booming business center. And it already built 81 affordable housing units at Blessed Sacrament, including in the former rectory, which the JPNDC once argued was so infeasible to preserve that it threatened the whole project.
“People have to understand we’re not miracle-workers,” despite such successes, Thal said.
He noted that Blessed Sacrament is different because it was purchased at market-rate. The Brewery only cost about $300,000 and construction and financing costs were far lower. On the church campus, JPNDC is under $4 million to $5 million in “real, serviceable debt,” he said.
“A big role of CDCs is mediating between the ideal and the real,” Thal said. “When you get involved in this level of project, there are financial pressures.”
The JPNDC would be happy to consider an alternative project that could take on those costs, the staffers said, and they apologized repeatedly for not being more open sooner about the financial pressures. But it appears the JPNDC will not set up any formal method for hearing alternative proposals.
“It would be disingenuous to start all over again,” Thal said.
The JPNDC worked hard to vet multiple proposals for the buildings, with charter schools, artist live/work space and senior housing coming the closest to reality before falling through, the staffers said. Thal previously told the Gazette that a community center proposal was floated as well, but that the JP-based backers never showed up with a funding scheme.
Kyle Robidoux, the JPNDC’s assistant director of community organizing, said that the developer did reach out to 15 to 20 people, including elected officials and members of a City advisory panel, about “the direction we were going” toward market-rate housing.
Robidoux added that the JPNDC withdrew somewhat from community input following the 2010 failure of a community-based condo plan for the church building, a proposal that JPNDC publicly announced and staged meetings for. Those meetings took a lot of JPNDC resources, he said.
“We’ve realized it’s better to err on the side of caution” before announcing proposals, he said.
While the new housing plans have some neighborhood supporters, they have drawn a lot of controversy as increasing gentrification of one of JP’s lowest-income areas. The controversy extends into the JPNDC, where the board was reportedly divided in approving the deals.
“Some of the lessons about giving more information to the community applies internally,” Thal said, explaining that some JPNDC members weren’t in the loop on the plans.
Robidoux said the JPNDC understands the gentrification issue as well as anyone. He noted the organization recently did a door-knocking survey of 300 area households and in some cases found four families living in a single unit due to the housing cost pressures.
“We are aware that things have changed” with higher-cost housing in the area, and that there is “anxiety about change,” he said.
When the Gazette asked whether, all financial wisdom aside, the JPNDC is happy with the new housing plans, Swenson simply shook her head and mouthed the word, “No.”
What does make the JPNDC happy is the thought of moving resources into new programming. That includes its Family Prosperity Initiative, a financial planning program; work with day care and preschool programs; and the next phase of housing and retail construction in the Jackson Square redevelopment, which the JPNDC could file as soon as next month.
It also could include more affordable housing development. The JPNDC staffers expressed interest in available MBTA land near the Forest Hills T Station on Hyde Park Avenue, which was earmarked for highly affordable housing in a community process.
“We’ve always felt those are the last undeveloped parcels and key crossroads in the southern part of the neighborhood,” Thal said. “The development role is [yet] to be seen.”