JP Observer: City to Community on Recent Projects Seems To Be: ‘We Tell, Not Listen.’Needed Changes Can Bring Genuine, Productive Public Participation

​Jamaica Plain residents and business people are dealing with some large, complex public projects this year including City of Boston plans for creating additional sections of a bike-lane network on JP streets; renovating White Stadium in Franklin Park to host a women’s professional soccer league team in addition to school sports; and preserving community uses instead of salt piles on the long-planned Arborway Yard development.

Various uses described with charts, maps, numbers and drawings support optimistic plans for intended improvements for the community.

​Total cost of these investments—public and private—will be close to a billion dollars. The projects will use and affect dozens of acres of land in JP and thousands of residents and business people.

For these reasons, community people have been willing and felt the need and responsibility to get involved in decision-making—well-intentioned as the projects may be—that will affect them and this neighborhood for decades.

Local neighborhood associations, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, and some ad hoc working groups are wrestling with them at length.

Arborway Yard

Good news came just this week from the MBTA about the Arborway Yard project on Washington Street, in reaction to community protest and pressure at MBTA-sponsored meetings, JPNC subcommittee meetings and elsewhere.

“It’s a very positive announcement,” Alexandra Markiewicz, manager of the MBTA Bus Modernization Program, said in an interview. The City and the T “heard the community loud and clear.” They are re-making “a commitment to designate 8 acres” of the yard for community benefit, she said.

A 23-year-old Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) developed by the City, MBTA and community, calls for 8 acres of land there to be used for residential, commercial and green space—called “community land” for short—in addition to a maintenance facility between Forest Hills and Stonybrook to serve 200 electric buses.

But the City threw a monkey-wrench into the carefully crafted $800 million plan this past winter, suddenly announcing it wanted a piece of the Yard land back. The City had agreed to give up the plot that abuts Forest Hills Street that was used as a pole yard, as part of the MOU. The City’s Public Works Department (PWD) said early this year it wanted it to store piles of road salt.

“I can’t believe it’s happening,” Allan Ihrer said at the July meeting of the Stonybrook Neighborhood Association about the City’s insistence on keeping its land. Ihrer was on the original Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard and has followed it closely since then.

“A really bad thing is happening,” he told the more than 20 people there. “The City is not listening to us.”

The community raised a very appropriate uproar in response to the City’s action, called “cataclysmic” by Ihrer in an interview in early October. It would have reduced the community land by almost one quarter. In addition, the new MBTA bus facility would have jutted awkwardly into the community land.

Now the salt yard will remain but be “reconfigured,” according to the T. The maintenance facility will not interrupt the community land.

Signs attached to a fence on Williams Street and held during a stand-out at the edge of the “temporary” Yard in September echo what people have been saying at meetings for months, including at the Neighborhood Council Committee on the Arborway Yard, “Homes! Not Salt.”

The T is required to have an electric bus fleet by 2029, so it needs the Arborway Yard maintenance facility for them.

“We see this as a positive step forward,” in getting construction started and finished in time, Director of MBTA Bus Facility Modernization Scott Hamwey said.

​Overall, the City in the past year or so has not been nearly as cooperative as it suddenly is now on the Arborway Yard. And it hasn’t been nearly as open to community input as people in JP— a neighborhood that was key to stopping I-95 and replacing it with community benefits—have come to expect of local government over the years.

Bike Lanes

Two frustrated residents involved with what the City is calling its “Better Bike Lanes” plan, have described the community process around bike lanes on JP side streets this past year as being something like, “We tell, not listen” as the City’s motto when it comes to community engagement. Others involved with other City projects this year have made similar statements.

Having participated in, then covered as a journalist, hundreds of community input processes over the last 38 years and coauthored a book about how ordinary people can and do affect public policy, the City’s community engagement has been surprising and disappointing to me. But there is hope that Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration will modify its community engagement practices as her term goes on.

Traffic humps and other changes are appearing this month on the streets designated by the City in September 2022 for bike lanes in JP: Green, Eliot, McBride, and Boylston plus Seaverns Avenue. The changes were made to S. Huntington Avenue months ago.

Some residents on and near Eliot Street, have voiced major safety concerns due to the already non-conforming width of Eliot at 21 feet and the fact that the added “contraflow” bike lane will spill riders onto the Jamaicaway. Frequent bicycle riders JP resident Michael Epp and Eliot Street neighborhood residents Bob Mathews, Bill Pignato and Franklyn Salimbene have all voiced concerns about city bike lane plans, but they got pretty much nowhere.

Mathews called the street redesign for bikes “a solution in search of a problem” in a recent interview.

“I fear someone is going to get hurt,” Pignato said several times. “I like bike paths, just not these bike paths,” the bike rider said. “I don’t think my views and concerns were ever taken seriously.”

Epp, who became involved as a bicyclist and member of the Centre/South Main Streets board, said he offered some comments at the Curley School Open House on the project.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” was the response he got from City staff, he said. He and others said, when asked, that it didn’t appear that any staff were taking notes or recording when community members shared thoughts and opinions.

In response to the Gazette asking the City about three community processes discussed here, an unnamed “City spokesperson” described “outreach” for the Bike Lane Network expansion in JP that took place between Sept. 22, 2022, when Wu announced it, and when construction began on changes to the streets recently in late September in an email.

The press office spokesperson listed these actions the City took to promote public input: the mayor’s announcement of the expansion, a presentation to the Jamaica Pond Association (JPA) [requested by JPA), flyers and emails, two open-houses [with boards posted for people to look at and a City staff person there], three community walks, virtual office hours by appointment, in-person hours at two days at two libraries, and postcards to alert people to coming construction. [brackets are inserts of additional information].

No unique public meetings per se were said to be held.

An emailed invitation from Kay Mathew, chair of the JPA, to City transportation planner Nathaniel Fink, to talk about last minute changes—two additional speed humps and white plastic flex posts—to the Eliot Street project at its recent Oct. 2 meeting was summarily declined six days later, three days before the meeting.

Deputy Chief of Streets Julia Campbell responded to it instead of Fink, writing in an email, “We are now moving into construction, and it is not appropriate for us to engage in further discussion about design changes at this time.”

In an email to me last week, Mathew included a copy and commented, “Our reaction of course was, when is it ever inappropriate to meet with Boston citizens who request a meeting?”

Bike rider Janice Rogovin and others in the one-way Boylston Street area have reported they have also voiced concerns about the safety of contraflow bike lanes on the narrow street and the removal of 13 parking spaces. She said she and others have suggested alternatives to no avail. “I find it insulting for the City to disregard the neighborhood,” she said in a phone call.

“The [City’s Boylston Street] design is not something people think is advantageous. Other routes would make more sense,” she added. She said City staff and some others responded when she voiced those thoughts as though she was anti-bicycle for raising concerns. She said that when the community process started last May, the decisions about the street re-design had apparently “already been made.”

Boylston Street resident and bike rider Pip Lewis wrote in the Jamaica Plain News in September: “Many pro-bike lane residents around Boylston Street are very disappointed with the city’s continued insistence on pushing through its original Boylston Street Bike Lane Plan without any revisions to respond to the expressed concerns and objections of the neighbors.”

White Stadium

Plans for White Stadium, a Boston School Department facility at the corner of JP and Roxbury in Franklin Park near dense residential neighborhoods took many people by surprise this past summer. Local resident and activist Sarah Freeman said the plans “dropped from the sky.”

The City issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) in April that called for a tenant that would pay for some renovations and support BPS use. No community input was sought in designing the RFP, though such a thing would not be unusual other places and times.

In June the City received a single proposal from Boston Unity Soccer LLV (BUSP) which was designated the “preferred proposer” to lease the White Stadium West Grandstand and Adjacent Areas. BUSP offered to do $30 million in renovations.

The City Press Office spokesperson wrote, “Additionally, [to website information about the White Stadium project] BUSP did engagement to help develop their RFP application and a presentation to the community that was required before designation.”

I could not find any information anywhere that such outreach to the community was done by the City or the proposer “before BUSP developed their application.” The City does frequently say that they will do continued community “engagement” in the future.

According to the Boston Globe, concerns about parking and access voiced by neighbors nixed a $45 million project to restore and upgrade White Stadium endorsed by Mayor Tom Menino in 2013.

A meeting this month about “Transportation” issues with the proposed tenant began a series of community meetings about the proposal, the City has said. The BUSP plan calls for about 20 women’s professional soccer games per year on weekends with seating for 11,000 fans. BUSP has talked about using shuttle buses from T stations and parking lots (not at the zoo or golf course) to deal with traffic and parking.

Good Process and Practices

​“No one likes surprises,” is a good adage when it comes to major projects, even when the project has a positive goal. Change is tricky to sell unquestioned, because even positive change can have downsides.

​No matter what it’s called—community process, public participation, community input, community engagement—they all have certain generally accepted components, some of which the City of Boston appears to have been missing these days.

The presenter(s) of projects, including any level and department of government, as well as institutions and businesses, should: get community input as early as possible in the process; allow community people to hear one another’s thoughts as well as officials; always have meetings open to the general public, not just walks, open houses, break-out groups, and the like, which are optional; record/make note of and genuinely respect all information, suggestions and opinions presented by community people in any forum; recognize that community people may have on-the-ground experience and know-how that presenter(s) lack and need; get back to the community about actions being discussed and/or taken in response to their input; provide necessary, related technical and other explanatory information.

Presenter(s) should NOT: make unilateral announcements of projects that are mostly and in some detail predetermined without community input; rely heavily on trained experts for most decision-making; appoint so-called “community leaders” to participate on behalf of the community in place of inviting the general public to participate in a meaningful, influential way; mistake and/or automatically portray concerns people express about process or specific aspects of a project as opposition to the good goal(s) of the project; start implementing projects without achieving closure with the community.

These common-sense, easy-to-follow, flexible guidelines should be respected by everyone, including the Commonwealth as it deals with the huge redevelopment of the former Shattuck Hospital on Morton Street by Boston Medical Center and partners.

People have every right to question any community participation process or project that results from a process that doesn’t adhere to guidelines.

The following was sent by the City of Boston Press Office as a general response to my request for response to concerns about City recent community process in JP:

City Spokesperson Statement:

“The City prioritizes community engagement on projects that impact residents’ daily lives and uses a variety of engagement methods to gather resident feedback. Our multipronged approach to engagement is designed to reach those people who frequently weigh in on City projects as well as those who cannot or do not participate in traditional meeting-based engagement. City staff use this feedback to help inform final plans and make adjustments for the long-term success of the neighborhood and its families.”

The statement mostly focuses on various formats for collection of community input. Public processes that never include general meetings are usually much less successful at empowering communities and presenters, because everyone can’t share information and comments without meetings. It’s also harder to hold presenters and staff responsible for responding when conversations are small or one-on-one. If presenters are concerned about providing additional formats like walks, for example, for the community to use to give recorded input, in addition to full public meetings, that’s fine.

​It’s not just nice or good politics to follow guidelines. A successful community participation process empowers both the presenters and the community. A bad one fosters conflict among community members. Several people, have used the term “divide and conquer” to describe the recent City processes, especially when it comes to support for a project’s goals. A good community brings all involved together and usually results in better projects.

​Mayor Wu’s fairly new administration has time now to examine and improve its community input process. That’s what Mayor Raymond L. Flynn’s administration did after it had a big public process problem in JP a couple of years after he was inaugurated for his first term.

​Knowing that affordable housing was needed, he declared that housing would be developed on what’s known as “the Curley lot” across from the Curley School on Centre Street. He proudly announced the developer, the number of units, etc. All heck broke loose.

Many members of the Flynn-formed and appointed Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) said there had to be a community process regarding disposition of public land. The neighbors and members of the general community agreed. Some of the unpleasantness included city staff saying that people who wanted a process were obviously anti-affordable housing. The label didn’t really stick or change anyone’s stand. [Note: I was the elected JPNC chair at the time. I was not a journalist then.]

After things had calmed down some weeks later, the JPNC created a draft public property disposition process they unanimously agreed upon and submitted to the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), the City agency in charge of disposing city-owned land in JP at the time for response and input. DND accepted the process without suggesting any changes, and it was used in JP and other neighborhoods around the city for years after.

The Curley lot went through various unsuccessful proposals for years afterwards, until it was determined it should just be a fixed-up version of what it was mostly being used for already—a parking lot for teachers at the Curley School across the street.

Flynn first won the mayor’s office in 1983 with 65 percent of the vote. Wu tallied a similar 64 percent in 2021. It seems that both new mayors thought they won by such a large margin they had a mandate to announce projects and other proposals they felt the community would instantly approve one hundred percent for the public good—little or no further public input needed. It’s an easy mistake to make, but one that can be fixed. Flynn and his staff changed his administration’s approach to community process.

More than specific projects, voters want a mayor who continues to give them a voice.

Land cleared for an I-95 extension coming through JP—back in the late 1960s was said repeatedly by feds, state and local government for years to be a “fait accompli.” That stretch of land, already cleared of houses and businesses to make way for the highway, is now home to the Orange Line, thanks to cooperative efforts by the City, the state and community residents and business people. With community-designed stations and the Southwest Corridor Park, plus community-input RFP housing that now blends in, public transport runs through JP as testament to the power and brilliance of true public participation. Anyone who doubts the value and importance of community input should look at that.

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