When It Comes To Land Development, The Mayor Is Key

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(Jessie Martin/WBUR)
The three candidates vying to unseat Mayor Menino say his controversial role in the development of a vacant lot on Tremont St. highlights the disproportionate amount of power concentrated in his hands. (Jessie Martin/WBUR)

Across the street from the Boston Police Department headquarters, on Tremont Street, an eight-acre piece of land sits vacant. The plot had been a neighborhood before it was destroyed to make way for the Southwest Expressway, a highway that was never built.

Last April, this piece of land was the subject of a heated meeting at the Dudley Square Library.

South End developer Kevin McCrea, one of three candidates running against Mayor Thomas Menino, was among those at the library that night. "We were there for a meeting about how the Elma Lewis Partners had been de-designated by the BRA," McCrea recalled.

Elma Lewis was a mentor to generations of dancers, singers and actors who trained at her school in Roxbury. The group, named after the late arts teacher, proposed to transform the parcel, known as P3, into a complex that would include offices, stores, housing, an art museum, a health center and a school.

Two years ago, the Boston Redevelopment Authority designated Elma Lewis Partners as the lead developers on the huge parcel of land. But after the collapse of world financial markets last fall, Elma Lewis Partners lost all hope of finding financing for the project, and the BRA took it away from them.

"We felt that this was an arbitrary and discriminatory treatment of us," said Edmund Barry Gaither, one of the Elma Lewis Partners.

A real-estate financier working with Elma Lewis Partners said, until last fall's financial collapse, the project seemed promising: It was close to a T station, Longwood Medical Center and Northeastern University, and the museum would draw people to the shops and restaurants.

Mayor Menino said the only reason that Elma Lewis Partners lost the project was that the group couldn't put the money together. "For two years, they had designated. Nothing ever happened," Menino said. "Nothing ever happened, because the developer was never able to get any equity, never came up with any plans. "

The Dudley Square Library was packed that night in April. Kevin McCrea said he and the other two candidates running against the mayor, City Councilors Sam Yoon and Michael Flaherty, were among those present.

"The crowd was very animated and very upset," McCrea said. "At one point, a woman stood up and said, 'This is an election year. It's time to get rid of the mayor,' and the crowd spontaneously erupted with applause and cheers — and the people realize it's not the BRA. It's the mayor that's behind all this."


The executive director of the BRA, John Palmieri, was there to defend the decision to pull the city's support away from Elma Lewis Partners.

"Almost to a one, people spoke about their commitment to the Elma Lewis Partners group, even though they understood, I think, that the group had failed to achieve certain kinds of benchmarks along the way," Palmieri said. "It became clear to us at that meeting that the community, generally speaking, was very much in support of having us reconsidering their designation."

Also present at the meeting was City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who is also running against the mayor.

"There was probably a couple of hundred concerned residents of the community who basically felt that they were snookered, that they were lied to," Flaherty said, "and that the mayor and the BRA — because they didn't either like who was involved in it or they had another plan in mind — decided to pull the rug out from underneath it."

Kevin McCrea said people in the meeting had the impression that Elma Lewis Partners was not going to be able to get the project back. "The BRA director informed the crowd that they had been de-designated because they had not met certain terms of the agreement by agreed-upon dates," McCrea said, "and that there was no possible way that Elma Lewis Partners could be re-designated by the BRA."

After the meeting, the Bay State Banner, the city's African-American newspaper, published an editorial urging African-Americans to vote against the mayor. Within days, the mayor held a press conference announcing that Elma Lewis Partners was being re-designated as the developer of Parcel 3.

"The mayor got involved," said John Palmieri. "He was listening to a number of neighborhood people. "

"I came out and gave 18 more months," Menino said, "and they still haven't got anything new."

The Whittier Street Health Center, which plans to build its new facility on Parcel 3, is now a key part of the plan, because it's secured federal money to build its clinic. But the mayor remains skeptical that Elma Lewis can pull the project off.

"Whittier Street was the catalyst for me re-designating them, and they're still having problems," Menino said, "The developer's not cooperating with them this time. They want Whittier Street to pay for all the infrastructure. The developers also have to understand that they have to have some equity. Where is the equity to get the project done? I want this project to move up front, because there's nothing else going on there. "

The plan now is for the health center to go ahead with construction, even though Elma Lewis Partners has yet to secure financing for the rest of the project.

John Palmieri, the head of the BRA, said, in the end, things worked out the way they should. "It just became clear that we needed to reconsider", Palmieri said, "and it's hard to do sometimes when you're in public service in my kind of position to make those changes, but I think the mayor was principally responsible for really encouraging us to consider what the neighborhood had to say, and so I think the process was well served."

But the mayor's opponents, including City Councilor Sam Yoon, said what happened with Parcel 3 is a lesson on what needs to change.

"This is not the way development should be happening in the city," Yoon said. "This is not the way communities' desires and their own vision should be realized. The BRA, their presence in the community is often seen as arrogant, and rightly so. The mayor reversing himself in that dramatic a fashion just really shows how out of touch he is. "

Another of Menino's opponents, Kevin McCrea, said all development in the city depends on the mayor. "The only process in this city is whether you're in good standing with the mayor or not," McCrea said. "After the Bay State Banner came out with the editorial, the mayor is there with the Elma Lewis Partners, re-designating them, something that the head of the supposedly independent Boston Redevelopment Authority said could not happen. Clearly the mayor runs everything in this town — and the only process is making sure that he's happy."

But none of the three candidates has offered a road map for how to do things differently, other than to say that the process has to be less personal.

Menino had harsh words for his opponents. "They have nothing else to do," Menino said. "They haven't accomplished anything in their careers. I'm trying to do a decent job in the city, but you're listening to guys who don't care about the city. They only want to make headlines. I'm trying to move Boston forward."

It's not clear how the project moves forward now. A development consultant and a real-estate financier working on it said Elma Lewis Partners is on the verge of getting major commitments from Northeastern and from a major medical center to be long-term tenants.

They also said that Elma Lewis Partners has found a co-developer. They are waiting for the BRA's approval. One thing all sides agree on is that what got the project back on track was the mayor's intervention.

This program aired on August 25, 2009.

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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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