JP OBSERVER: Popular, much-needed housing here should not be held up

The final and most important in a series of wonderful votes occurred to benefit Jamaica Plain and the Boston area just as the covid 19 pandemic was first arriving here this spring.

At a hearing on March 10, the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) unanimously approved 202 much-needed living units—140 for formerly homeless individuals and 62 units for low and moderate income people at 3368 Washington St. near the Green Street intersection.

The development—by Pine Street Inn (PSI), the largest homeless services provider in New England, and The Community Builders (TCB), “a mission-driven real estate development corporation committed to quality, diversity and prosperity”—had overwhelming backing from residents and businesses in the neighborhood.

The positive regard for the development of the site, owned by Pine Street Inn and currently used as offices, came just in time to help one of the most vulnerable groups in our society—people without permanent, supportive housing.

“This supportive housing model has proven extremely effective,” according to Pine Street Inn’s website. Reflecting on 30 years’ experience, it goes on to say that “more than 91 percent of chronically homeless individuals placed in housing remain long-term” and “moving someone from the streets/shelter to housing saves roughly $10,000 per person, per year in emergency healthcare, public safety and shelter costs.”

In addition to housing, 3368 Washington will continue to include offices and add community meeting space and 39 off-street below-grade parking spaces. 

The ZBA vote of approval was the culmination of a year of a community process that resulted in the development team agreeing to reduce the number of units from 236 to 202 and the height of the building from six to five floors. An Impact Advisory Group (IAG) worked with them. In December, 2019 the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) voted its approval, followed by Mayor Marty Walsh praising the development. After a unanimous vote of its Zoning Committee, the JP Neighborhood Council (JPNC) had also unanimously approved it, with no one speaking against it.

The mayor’s office and the offices of city councilors Matt O’Malley, Annissa Essaibi George and Michael Flaherty all supported the proposal at the ZBA hearing—as did the owner of neighboring BMS Paper.

Jamaica Plain and the City of Boston know a good thing when they see it. This planned development is a good idea in every sense of the word. It will be a great addition to the neighborhood.

Funders agree. Funding for the $96 million development includes $5 million in linkage from a development at One Congress Street, $1.5 million from the city’s Community Preservation Act fund, debt, other city and state funds and private equity. In addition, $5 million from Boston’s Way Home Fund of $10 million will fund a services reserve for Pine Street Inn for residents of 3368 Washington St. that will be supplemented each year.

Groundbreaking for the sorely needed housing was and is still planned for this coming December, according to Bart Mitchell of TCB, followed by two years of construction, despite a lawsuit against the development filed in Suffolk Superior Court on May 14 by the owner of one of the buildings across the street.

Monty Gold of 3377 Washington Street LLC filed suit against the City of Boston Zoning Board of Appeal and The Community Builders. His attorney was the only person who spoke against the development at the ZBA hearing. Gold was a member of the IAG.

News of the lawsuit has brought about another outpouring of support for the development and some upset comments from the neighborhood.

In a strongly worded letter to the Editor published in the Jamaica Plain Gazette on Aug. 28, the JPNC wrote, “We hope that Mr. Gold will withdraw the lawsuit so that this desperately needed housing can be built as soon as possible. In a pandemic and an economic crisis that has devastated communities of color and working-class communities in particular, this project can offer hope and home for our neighbors.”

“Pine Street Inn and The Community Builders are proud to have gained the support of many leaders and residents in Jamaica Plain and know how concerned they are that one party is seeking to stand in the way of the project,” the 3368 Washington St. development partners responded in a written statement. “The two organizations are in discussion to try and resolve the issues with the party who brought the lawsuit,” the statement said.

Thank goodness.

Bowditch House, which opened in 1991 with 50 units of housing for formerly homeless people, was created from a surplused historic City of Boston elementary school on Green Street in JP and has been a positive part of the neighborhood ever since.

The building at 3368 Washington will join Bowditch House and others in the Greater Boston area belonging to Pine Street Inn as permanent, supportive housing for formerly homeless people.

The specific concern expressed in Gold’s lawsuit—that parking and traffic on the street would be adversely affected by the development, and that would negatively affect his tenant, Turtle Swamp Brewing—seems to have little basis in real experience with other Pine Street Inn housing or with housing and businesses close to public transportation.

Bowditch House residents don’t have cars, and “it is highly unlikely” that any of the 140 formerly homeless residents will have a car, Lyndia Downie, executive director of Pine Street Inn, said in a written statement.

A happy Bowditch House neighbor agrees—and more. “We lived next to Pine Street Inn’s facility on Green Street for 14 years, and they have been great neighbors,” Jeffrey Jacobson wrote on Facebook in August. “Importantly, they generally don’t own cars,” he said. “The facility next to us has a tiny little parking lot they don’t even fill. Traffic won’t be a problem.” The comment drew 17 “likes.”

Fortunately, the Washington Street area where 3368 and 3377 are located are served by the #42 bus, which goes right by frequently, and Green Street Station on the Orange Line, a short walk away.

In his complaint Gold says he is “aggrieved.” Under Massachusetts zoning law, only parties that are substantially and specifically injured have standing to appeal a zoning board decision.

Gold’s complaint claims the 3368Washington Street ZBA decision—made following lengthy review and considered approvals by other highly respected bodies—was somehow “arbitrary and capricious.” His lawsuit also says the building will be six stories tall, failing to note that the number was brought down to five well before it was approved by the ZBA.

Turtle Swamp owners made it clear on their Facebook page in August that they are not a party to their landlord’s suit, but they added that they are concerned about the possible negative impact of construction at 3368 and other major Washington Street developments planned for that area will have on their brewing and food service enterprise at 3377 Washington St.

In an interview on Aug. 17, Bart Mitchell of TCB said the developers will be holding a community meeting soon to talk about mitigation during 3368 construction. He pointed out that, if the 3368 work schedule is not delayed by the lawsuit, the development will become an early “committed long-term stakeholder” in the neighborhood and help make sure subsequent construction projects will “get done well.”

The sooner issues are resolved and the lawsuit is taken off the table, the better for everyone, not only for formerly homeless and limited income folks, but also the surrounding neighborhood.

“Housing for vulnerable and low-income individuals and families is more critical than ever, and any project delays will have a significant impact on the lives of those who depend on this housing. We look forward to continuing to partner with our neighbors to bring this project to fruition,” the development partners’ written statement went on to say.

“It made me feel so good to move in.”

That’s what Christine, a formerly homeless person, said in January, 2018 about moving into her home the Bowditch House on Green Street 10 years before. Christine is just one of hundreds of people living in Pine Street Inn housing, like the planned development at 3368 Washington Street. From the Pine Street Inn website that includes quite a few “Stories of Hope” similar to Christine’s:

Christine has spent her entire life in Boston. She grew up in Fidelis Projects in Brighton. After graduating high school, she maintained a job in a mail room for 13 years, until she fell in with a bad crowd. Drugs took over her life and her sole focus became her next high. She lost her job and couch-surfed with friends, until she eventually ended up on the street.

“Pine Street’s Outreach team met Christine there and talked to her at length about coming in to the shelter and getting off the streets. They told her about the Bowditch House in Jamaica Plain, where she could live if she worked to get herself sober. Finally, she said yes.

Christine came to Pine Street with nothing. She was given clothing, food and the support in getting sober. Staff connected her with a doctor to address her health issues.

“All of the staff are so supportive—they do whatever they need to do to help you,” she reflects. “If you want to go to school or work or volunteer or whatever, staff is behind you 100 percent.

As a resident at Green Street for more than 10 years now, Christine has built a network of support. “Moving into Pine Street got me off the streets,” she said. “More than ever I have a sense of community, and I have more love for myself. It made me feel so good to move in. I finally had my feet on the ground because I could call this place home. No more drugs or running around.”

That’s the problem with lawsuits against developments for the public good like this one, as the development team pointed out. One lawsuit by one individual can do harm to many just by its existence, even if the lawsuit gets dismissed later. JP has seen this before. The longer construction has to be put off, the more expensive construction becomes.

In this case, the lawsuit filed by just one building owner could postpone and add costs to housing designed to help hundreds of limited income people survive and thrive that is strongly supported by the community around it.

No one—hopefully, including the plaintiff—wants that to happen. It’s been said a lot, and in this case it’s certainly true: We’re all in this together.

Sandra Storey is Founder/Publisher Emerita of the Jamaica Plain Gazette

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