Viet-AID goes back to the drawing board, again

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Oct. 8, 2008

After a tumultuous meeting on Tuesday night, Viet-AID is again carrying its carefully-crafted presentation for Bloomfield Gardens - a proposed 29-unit affordable housing building - back to the drawing board.

After making several changes - reducing the height of the building, setting it five feet back from the sidewalk, and taking off part of the fourth floor - they have less support than they did with the old plan.

A handful of the neighborhood associations who originally convinced Viet-AID to buy the lot, which had long been an eyesore for the neighborhood, withdrew their support when Viet-AID took out the retail space that made the building mixed-use. Their new proposal is entirely affordable rental housing.

"We tried to work for years and years to work with the [old owners] to develop that land to no avail," said Davida Andelman from the Greater Bowdoin Geneva Neighborhood Association. "We started talking to Viet-AID under the previous director to get something there, but we wanted not just a residential building, not just a commercial building, but a mixed-use building."

At Andelman's behest, an older resident in the crowd remembered Bloomfield Hall, which used to stand at the site, a two-story building with a chain of storefronts stretching across the block. "A pharmacy, a shoemaker and a bakery," she said.

Project manager My Lam expressed his own disappointment at the loss of the storefront in the proposed building but cited the growing economic crisis as the reason.

"I talked to a few brokers but once they found out what our construction costs would be, what a buyer would have to pay, they laughed," said Lam, adding that buyers of the commercial spaces at Viet-AID's project are having trouble securing the financing to close on their shops.

"I really regret that this decision was made without substantive discussion," said Andelman who questioned whether all the avenues were taken to find a prospective long-term tenant or buyer.

Rupert Moore from the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition and Sandra Kennedy from Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets echoed Andelman's concerns.

Another highly vocal group of abutters, many of whom helped push Viet-AID to make the changes in their plans at meetings back in July, reiterated their concerns over parking, traffic, density, and security and added a few more, such as the idea that affordable housing would lead to an increase in crime on the block, though all residents would receive background checks. Some went further.

"Why don't you forget this whole building and make it a park?" asked abutter Marie Marshall. "The kids can really play in that."

Another woman from Bloomfield Street said she'd rather see the lot paved over.

When Evelyn Darling, director of Fields Corner Main Streets, made the point that 35 percent of the people living in the Fields Corner area don't own cars, she was shouted down with "Where do you live?" and other dismissals. Darling lives near Peabody Square.

Many of the loosely organized abutters who deride the project on density grounds feel as though the project was sprung upon them at the last minute. They oppose the project's size even though Viet-AID has said repeatedly that less than 29 units would not be economically feasible as affordable housing.

Many of the Fields Corner activists who support the project say they are frustrated to see their long-fought for dream unraveling at the hands of those who have had little participation in neighborhood improvements in the past, and fear the lot will remain vacant.

Others, mainly from Bowdoin-Geneva however, are bent on stitching together the struggling commercial district along Geneva Avenue.

Taking it all into account, project manager My Lam seemed to dig deep for hope that the project would avoid going the way of Viet-AID's development at St. William's Church, which was completely abandoned and sold after practically the same density-based deadlock played out with the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association.

"We just gotta go back and look at the program," said Lam. "I don't know how much we can do. There's competing interests in there and we're caught in the middle."