East Boston Activist: We Can't Have Displacement With Development

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Neenah Estrella-Luna is a professor of law and policy at Northeastern University and a community activist in East Boston, where she lives. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)
Neenah Estrella-Luna is a professor of law and policy at Northeastern University and a community activist in East Boston, where she lives. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Ahead of Boston's mayoral election, we're visiting the city's neighborhoods to find out what challenges they face and what voters there want in a new mayor.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer toured Maverick Square in East Boston, as well as the nearby waterfront, with Neenah Estrella-Luna, an Eastie resident, an activist with several community groups and a professor of law and policy at Northeastern University.

She worries that East Boston doesn't get the same attention from the city as other neighborhoods because it's somewhat isolated and has a high immigrant population, a majority of them now Spanish speakers.

Sacha met her at LoPresti Park, which is right in the middle of a long stretch of property primed for major housing development, and looks across the harbor at the Boston skyline.

Neenah Estrella-Luna: This is probably the best view of the city of Boston anywhere, outside of being actually on the water.

Sacha Pfeiffer: It's a pretty million-dollar vantage point.

And you know what's wonderful? You don't have to earn a million dollars to actually be able to see it. That's the wonderful thing about East Boston. It's a wonderful and diverse neighborhood that has a lot of assets, and this is one of them, definitely — and one of them that we're hoping, actually, to build upon. What's really going to change East Boston for the next 20, 30, 40 years are all of these really large developments that are happening, all within a three-minute walking distance from where we're standing right now.

Could you show us some of those?

Yes. So right here, right in front of us, is the Hodge Boiler Works site. It's currently a vacant lot. I think they tore it down two or three years ago. Hodge Boiler Works is proposing to do 95 rental units. The biggest complaint about this particular project is not that they're redeveloping it. Every reasonable person in this neighborhood wants the waterfront to be developed. This is a blight. It's dangerous. The challenge has been that the city and the developer have not incorporated the community in the development and the design of this project.

Is this the Boston Redevelopment Authority?

This would be Boston Redevelopment Authority and the developer himself.

When we spoke with the BRA, they insist that they have included East Boston residents, that they have those conversations, that they are transparent.

Oftentimes what they'll say is, "We've been in conversation with the community for 20 years or 10 years." Well, I can tell you from just the nine years that I've been here, this community is completely different than it was nine years ago, much less 20 years ago.

So there need to be new conversations with new people?


What do you hope the new mayor does differently with the BRA?

We hope that they actually open up their decision-making processes. One of the complaints around the Hodge Boiler Works project is [that] in the initial proposals the agreement between the city and the developer was supposed to include some resources to help maintain this park. It's right next door to this development. In the most recent agreement, that's all gone.

East Boston has historically been a place where you can find lower rents, lower housing prices. That is changing a little bit. What do you think the next administration needs to keep in mind when it comes to housing costs and affordability and accessibility of housing?

None of these new developments that are being proposed along the waterfront, in particular, are going to increase, really, the proportion of affordable housing in this community.

When you do these really large-scale developments all at once, that is where you get the possibility of displacement. That's really the big fear: that current residents are going to be pushed out of the neighborhood. This neighborhood is a mixed-income, mixed-race, mixed-family status, mixed-social-status community, and we want to maintain that and we want to build upon those assets.

And we definitely hope that we will maintain and create, actually, greater access to the water. Some of the developments — they're completely fenced off, they're abandoned, one of them for almost 40 years now. We don't have access to the water, and so residents in this community definitely want to have access to the water.

Another "huge East Boston issue," Estrella-Luna says, is Logan Airport.

Neenah Estrella-Luna: The city is not even enforcing the legal agreements that they have with the airport around airport noise and mitigation. I live in Eagle Hill, and there are some mornings where you can't even enjoy a cup of coffee in your garden because you've got planes that are so low, you can almost see the pilots, you know? I mean, the city has the ability to enforce the rules around how often they can do that, when they can do that. The city has the ability to provide better support to the residents so that some of us can have access to triple-pane windows. Very small parts of East Boston get them.

If a casino is built at Suffolk Downs, that will also have a huge effect on quality of life in East Boston. What do you hope the next administration will do to try to make it as little of a negative impact on East Boston as possible?

They will definitely have to enforce that mitigation agreement much more extensively and much more forcefully than they have the airport mitigation agreement [that addresses] traffic impact, resources that come to the neighborhood, how public safety resources are distributed. One of the concerns that residents have expressed is that it's going to divert attention from our public safety agencies. And that's just a recipe for additional problems because we know the police are deterrents.

Neenah, we're very close to Maverick Square, which is in many ways the heart of East Boston. Could you walk us over there?

Sure, it's just this way.

We're approaching a back entrance to the Maverick MBTA station, which has gotten quite spiffed up. It's had a very extensive renovation in recent years.

Yeah, we're very happy with this and, actually, one of the most recent amenities that was added was this covered bike rack, which was not here originally — amazing!

There's also a new community health center right in Maverick Square — the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center — so Maverick looks better than it did just a few years ago because of a lot of the renovation work going on here.

Yes, and the health center, in particular, I think, is a huge, huge new asset to the square.

There has been a lot of facade work here. We see some new signs and new paint jobs.

Yeah, we have a good Main Streets program. They're good for things like that.

Definitely we could use some more diversity in the retail and commercial offerings in the neighborhood. And, again, this is where some of these large developments are also falling short. None of these developments are actually proposing to put that kind of space in. And that's actually depressing the kind of entrepreneurial opportunities here, because if you're going to expand, currently there's not a lot of space.

In an ideal world, if East Boston got everything it wanted from the next administration, what would this community look like in a decade or so?

Some of these developments actually would be going up, and they would be including new residents in this community that would be assets to the community, that would help with addressing some of the issues that we're dealing with right now in terms of education, in terms of the quality and types of services and amenities that are here — but that would also maintain that wonderful diversity that we have here so that this remains a community where you can move into this community as a young professional and stay here and raise a family here, and retire in one of our elder housing developments. A place where you could come and choose to live and stay.

This article was originally published on October 02, 2013.

This program aired on October 2, 2013.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.


Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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