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Southie redevelopment pits arts center vs. apartments for veterans

Posted by Cara Bayles  October 1, 2010 02:39 PM

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In a public-planning conundrum that both sides believe will reflect the character of Southie, the city must decide whether to convert the former police station on D Street into an arts and cultural center or into an affordable-apartment complex for veterans and their families.

More than 200 people attended a community meeting in the Condon School on Thursday night. Supporters of the Patriot Homes apartment complex passed out American flags at the door, while arts center developers offered copies of an open letter to South Boston residents declaring the meeting was "your last chance to tell the city what you want for South Boston: an arts and community center … or more low-income housing."

The arts center would maintain the architecture of the police station, which was designed in 1914 by James McLaughlin, the architect behind Boston Latin School and Fenway Park. A 150-seat amphitheater would go where police cruisers used to park, and the upstairs rooms would be converted into artist spaces, a recording studio, and a digital media lab.

Daniel McCole, chairman of the nonprofit task force behind the proposal, quoted the architect Louis Kahn, saying, "The creation of Art is not the fulfillment of a need like food or shelter, but the creation of a need."

"Creative art is a need," McCole said at the hearing. "And there's a need here in Southie, as there was in Rome and Paris."

But the designers behind Patriot Homes argued there was a need for veterans housing, as well. The South Boston Neighborhood Development Corporation, which has created and managed several affordable apartments in Southie, said that housing prices in the neighborhood have doubled since 1997, and that veterans make up 10 percent of the neighborhood's population, compared to five percent in the city as a whole.

"We've seen in a two-year time frame an increase from 450 on the Boston Housing Authority waiting list to, this year, 687 veterans households on the waiting list," the corporation's director, Donna Brown, said at the hearing. "So we feel there's a real need and it's only increasing for this type of household."

The 24 affordable apartments would include handicap-accessible rooms, and a satellite veterans' affairs office. The maximum allowable income for tenants would be $38,000 A year for individuals, and $50,000 for families of four.

Residents voiced a range of concerns, including whether there would be enought parking for either development. The arts center would offer eight spots, despite its 150-capacity amphitheater. Patriot Homes would have 12 spots for 24 units.

Some pointed out that with after-school programs, the Boys and Girls Club and Artists for Humanity already offered creative programming.

"The arts already have places. These veterans do not," said Maureen O'Haire, whose son, Walter, was killed in action in Iraq in 2007. "You want a theater rather than to help your fellow man, who's served his country? I don't understand that."

Others worried that the new housing might bring a transient population in and out of South Boston. Many scoffed that the developers couldn't promise preferential treatment to veterans from the neighborhood, due to federal fair housing laws.

"How many Southie boys and girls are going to live in this place?" one resident asked.

Congressman Stephen Lynch's office announced his support of Patriot Homes, and City Councilor Bill Linehan announced at the end of the hearing that he, too, would support that development.

State Senator Jack Hart said at the beginning of the meeting that he supported both proposals. At the end of the hearing, Hart took a poll of the sentiment in the room with a show of hands. The arts center won.

"I would like to see both accomplished," he said after the vote, before asking for a show of hands of people who would like to see a collaboration.

The two developers met about combining their plans before they submitted their proposals to the city earlier this year. Brown said the neighborhood development corporation was willing to collaborate, but the arts center developers weren't interested. McCole said they'd "decided together it would be unworkable."

Community support plays a role in the decision, but ultimately, the city will decide which plan move forward. The deadline for written comments to the city's Department of Neighborhood Development is Oct. 14.

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