In its unprecedented move of taking legal action against the City and a developer, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council is engaged in a high-stakes gamble on its political credibility. Win or lose, the JPNC’s change of roles from advisors to litigants will impact the council’s power for years to come.
And this is a must-win for the JPNC. A win would validate the opinion of the current council’s many supporters that it is a perceptive crusader against gentrification, and the decision likely would alter the City’s development review process forever. A loss would validate the opinion of the council’s many critics that it is an out-of-touch clique of political grandstanders, and surely would cause the City and developers to take it less seriously.
We will leave the merits of the case to a judge, assuming it gets that far. Many suits of this kind, including a recent one in Jamaica Plain’s Parkside neighborhood, first run into challenges on the question of standing. That means that the party making a legal complaint has to prove that it has enough direct involvement in the dispute, or would suffer enough direct damage from it, to have grounds for seeking a remedy from a court.
This is an interesting case because the JPNC is an elected, though non-governmental, body that technically represents everyone in JP. Opposition to the 161 S. Huntington Ave. development in question is widespread, though certainly not unanimous. Indeed, the chair of the Zoning Board of Appeal, one of groups the JPNC is suing, is a JP resident.
The JPNC, along with similar neighborhood groups around the city, was created by Mayor Ray Flynn’s administration in the mid-1980s to advise and inform government about local issues. That does not mean the JPNC is or should be the City’s lapdog. It has frequently and effectively challenged, questioned and taken up important advocacy positions on issues of the day.
But in moving from representing JP in advising the City to suing it, the JPNC is sailing into unchartered waters. Will future developers and entrepreneurs refuse to let the JPNC review their zoning and licensing requests out of fear of getting sued by the council later? Will City officials literally be unable to discuss some of these issues with the JPNC because they are opponents in court?
One impact that is already here is the council being temporarily restrained in how it handles 161 S. Huntington. A main role of JPNC members is to discuss major local controversies, but here we have the unique situation of JPNC members declining public comment and referring questions to a lawyer. The 161 project is one of the major developments whose impact is being considered by the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s S. Huntington “corridor vision” plan. It may now be a challenge for the JPNC to engage with the City and the developer in those crucial discussions.
The JPNC is one of JP’s oldest and most potent community institutions in a neighborhood famous for its activism. Its meat-and-potatoes work is done by its Zoning and Public Service committees, which are comprised not solely of elected council members, but also of many regular volunteer residents uninvolved in the legal case. We hope that, whatever happens in court, the City will find a way to continue to bring variance- and license-seekers to those committees and take their decisions seriously. But we also understand that this future is a hard one to see.
In its traditional role, the JPNC has made several effective moves regarding 161 and other local developments, including holding public forums that no one else would have the political guts to stage.
The JPNC and its members also have made recent high-profile political blunders that have sapped its reputation and overwhelmed some valid concerns by exaggerating them. Last year, the JPNC made a miscalculated vote against Whole Foods Market coming to JP, then made a predictably unsuccessful attempt to request special community benefits from the chain. This year, in another controversy related to 161 S. Huntington, the JPNC chair and some other members issued a report that conflated dubious political donations made by the developers with bribery, essentially accusing all local elected officials of corruption.
A court case is more serious than a vote or a report. It will either be yet another JPNC blunder, or will write a new chapter in the council’s history of community power. No one can doubt the JPNC’s political boldness. All that remains to be seen is whether it’s also correct.