FOREST HILLS—City Councilor John Tobin is calling on city inspectors to explain their permitting of mysterious and controversial construction at the Bicon dental building at 501 Arborway.
“We’re a long way from letting Bicons be Bicons,” Tobin told the Gazette about his call for a Boston City Council hearing on approvals by the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD).
ISD’s controversial decisions include that there is no evidence Bicon (pronounced “bye-con”) is holding training courses at the site, though extensive classes are offered on Bicon’s web site and in industry publications. ISD also claims the building does not fall within a park district that would require more review, though earlier ISD documents from the 1980s suggest otherwise.
Meanwhile, extensive exterior and interior work of some kind is under way on the building. The work may be related to Bicon’s recent loss of rented space at Faulkner Hospital.
“The question continues to be, ‘What is ISD doing?’” said Jerry O’Connor, an unhappy neighbor on Yale Terrace.
“We feel as though we responded to any questions, comments or concerns regarding this property,” ISD spokesperson Lisa Timberlake said, adding that ISD is willing to explain itself further to neighbors. “We have worked extensively in inspecting this particular property and ensuring it is in compliance with all applicable codes.”
Bicon chief Dr. Vincent Morgan told the Gazette in a phone interview this week that he was unaware of Tobin’s call for a hearing. Asked about resident complaints and the construction, Morgan said, “I’m not a builder, so I have no comment. I have no knowledge about their concerns.”
“Thank you for calling me. Have a good day,” he said, then hung up before the Gazette could ask for more information.
Bicon is a company that makes and installs dental implants—basically, individual false teeth that are screwed into a patient’s jaw. Bicon appears to have a cutting-edge reputation in the dental field.
Bicon sparked community controversy last year when it proposed creating an Italian restaurant, operated by Morgan’s son, on the third floor of the building. Bicon allegedly sought an ISD permit for a company cafeteria in the space at the same time it was applying for a restaurant liquor license there, according to Tobin’s office.
Residents and the Mayor’s Office shot down that plan amid heated controversy. But it turned out to be the tip of the iceberg of community complaints.
Questions about the cafeteria permit led to other questions, including whether the addition of the third floor around 2005 should have been reviewed by the Boston Parks Commission because of proximity to the Arborway, a historic state parkway.
There are concerns about the height of a tower-like structure on one corner of the building. There are questions about training courses and how they impact traffic in the area.
“We’re not saying they can’t do it, but it’s a conditional use [under zoning code],” said O’Connor, explaining neighborhood concerns.
“We’re living on a very quiet residential street with architecturally significant buildings,” he said. “It’s just absolutely being fouled by this [construction] process.”
Residents and Tobin said they have sought an explanation from ISD for more than a year. The results, Tobin said, are “unacceptable.” One written response consisted largely of “sentence fragments,” according to O’Connor and Tobin’s office.
Tobin said he finally filed for a hearing last month after a lack of response from ISD, including one meeting where no ISD representatives showed up.
“It’s very rare we’d resort to this,” Tobin said. “My hope is we don’t have a hearing,” he added, explaining he wants to inspire a better response. No hearing date has been set.
Timberlake said ISD is willing to send a representative to a neighborhood meeting in the near future.
The Bicon building sits on Shea Circle between Morton Street and Yale Terrace. Among its mysteries is its address.
Historically, the property is 123 Morton St., and it is still listed as such in city records. Bicon apparently applied the 501 Arborway address when it acquired the building around 2000. The Arborway enters Shea Circle nearby.
The site used to be owned by a real estate trust owned by Forest Hills Cemetery. It has long had commercial and/or social service uses. In the 1960s, a monument company was there, followed by an insurance office. It appears the current building was constructed around 1988 as a state Department of Social Services facility.
When Bicon took over, it immediately took on a Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department training facility for women offenders as a first-floor tenant, with neighborhood approval. It is unclear what became of that facility.
Along with the controversial restaurant idea, Bicon also sought to put a day care facility in the building last year. That also did not happen, and it appears Bicon remains the sole occupant.
Bicon has several branches or departments all headquartered in the building. The one announced on large signs in front of the building is the Implant Dentistry Centre, which is the dental clinic for patients.
One of the signs drew Bicon’s sole citation among all the complaints, Timberlake said. It is apparently too large.
At least part of the clinic used to be at Faulkner Hospital on Centre Street, but that space went to Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s plastic surgery unit, according to hospital spokesperson Linda Monko.
There is also the self-explanatory Bicon Dental Lab and the Bicon Institute, a “worldwide education program” that offers a variety of courses at the building intended to train oral surgeons in Bicon’s products and techniques.
The apparently accredited courses are conducted at the Bicon building, according to the April issue of The Dentist’s Guide to Continuing Education. About a dozen are offered on regular monthly schedules, with online registration available. They often involve hands-on clinical or lab work.
Bicon web sites describe the Implant Dentistry Centre as a “teaching centre [sic]” and the Dental Lab as a “teaching facility” and “worldwide training facility” in relation to these courses. According to The Dentist’s Guide, almost all Bicon clinical procedures are recorded, in part for future teaching purposes.
Bicon materials online also list 501 Arborway as the company’s US and Canada distribution center. The company is listed as a dental implant manufacturer as well, though it unclear where products are actually made.
Bicon also has international distributors and conducts some courses in other states and countries. The courses include “Bicon Safari,” a trip to South Africa combining animal-watching with placing dental implants in patients’ mouths.
One neighborhood concern is that ISD allows all of this business to fall under the old-fashioned term “dentist’s office.” Tobin’s aides have been particularly surprised by ISD’s claim that the Bicon Institute appears not to exist.
“An inspection by this department reveals that the use is dental, for a dentist’s office,” said Timberlake, adding that means clinical exam and treatment.
What about all of the training courses mentioned on Bicon web sites? “That’s not significant evidence for this department to go by,” Timberlake said. “Marketing in any way, shape or form could be exaggerated.”
Aside from the official-looking web site course descriptions, the Gazette located personal web sites of dentists who say they have attended and completed Bicon courses. When Bicon moved into the building in 2000, its officials told the Gazette that its educational department would be housed in the building.
Timberlake said there was no evidence of training during an ISD inspection, though she could not say when that happened. In any case, she said, “Training would be allowed, I believe.”
Tobin is not so sure. “The building looks great,” he said. “It’s the use that’s being called into question. You need permits just like everybody else does.”
Actually, the building itself is also being called into question. If the property falls within the 100-foot “greenbelt overlay” district around the Arborway, then the addition of the third floor should have undergone at least Boston Parks Commission staff review, according to commission secretary Brian McLaughlin. He said the address did not ring a bell and he could not immediately locate files about it.
Timberlake said ISD “checked and rechecked” the park overlay zone and found that the building is not within it.
However, in a 1987 ISD application for parking, Forest Hills Cemetery said that 113 Morton St.—the property that is now Bicon’s adjacent parking lot—is within the overlay zone. An ISD document from that time appears to agree with that. 113 Morton is a bit farther from the Arborway, as the crow flies, than 501 Arborway is.
By the Gazette’s measurement of a Google satellite map, 501 Arborway, including at least part of the building, is within 100 feet of the Arborway where it enters Shea Circle. The building is also easily visible and accessible from the Arborway. However, those observations do not necessarily match the official overlay zone.
Rising above the third floor on one corner of the building is a tower-like structure capped with a cupola.
“A portion of the building does exceed the 35-foot height limit [in zoning code],” Timberlake said. But, she explained, the building’s average height does not exceed that limit, so it is permitted.
She explained that ISD computes average height based on the height of the roof beam and the average grade. Most of the Bicon building rises only three stories, and it is nestled into a hillside.
Timberlake said ISD also responded to concerns about the cafeteria that would have been a restaurant, saying it is permitted under the existing use.
The current work appears to involve a cafeteria—or café—as well, this time on the first floor.
ISD permits show electrical work for a “kitchen café renovation.” Other currently permitted work includes gas-fitting for ranges, ovens and grilles, and plumbing for kitchen sinks, dishwashers and bathrooms.
However, Timberlake said she could not immediately say what the goal of the permitted work is.
During a recent Gazette visit to the site, workers were refacing the brick exterior, and a number of contractors appeared to be working inside. No posted building permits were immediately visible.