Controversial lodging house proposal withdrawn

Neighbors remaining ‘vigilant’ on next move

A controversial proposal to convert a three-decker at 96 Milton Ave. into a 24-unit lodging house was withdrawn before a scheduled Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on Tuesday. The project architect told community members in an email that the team intends to “develop a new plan in the future.”

City inspectors determined last fall that the property, zoned as a three-family house in a primarily single or multi-family neighborhood, was being illegally operated as a lodging house for about 18 people. Kelvin Sanders, the owner of the property through his LLC, Last Layer Realty, filed in January to convert the building into an official lodging house after the city brought him to court over the improper use.

Neighbors and elected officials have vigorously opposed the conversion. That the plan was pulled from the zoning board without their knowing what the next version of the plan will be does little to assuage their concerns.

“That’s a kid-friendly neighborhood,” said neighboring resident Jessica Stevens outside the hearing room on Tuesday. “There’s bus stops right there, there’s daycares right there, there’s schools right there. It’s a family community. It’s not a lodging community.”

Dawn Barrett, who lives on Stockton Street next to the building, founded the Dorchester Unified Neighborhood (DUN) Association as neighbors became concerned about clusters of moderate- and high-risk sex offenders who appeared to be packed into the house. The issue was first highlighted by neighbors and reported in the Reporter last fall.

A judge ruled last month that Sanders needed to either have the building legally designated as a lodging house or else convert it to a three-family. If the building management were to pursue a 24-unit lodging house, they would need variances for use, parking requirements, and screening and buffering requirements, according to the zoning board hearing notice.

In a departure from his usual neutral stance, state Rep. Dan Cullinane said he was prepared to speak in opposition to the project had it come before the board.

“I think the community’s rightfully frustrated,” he told the Reporter. “I think when you have a single property cause the creation of a brand new community group, there’s a serious issue at hand. And the community wants to be heard. The community wants to be part of the process, and at the end of the day, it was an illegal rooming house that right now is still illegal."

Although the architect, Newton-based Hezekiah Pratt, had told DUN members in his email that the proposal was being withdrawn, several neighbors made the trip downtown to make sure that was the case.

“We didn’t trust him,” Barrett said. She later added, “I was told that it’s a victory for the community that he pulled [the proposal], but now we need to know what the new plans are, if there are new plans. And we’re hoping that there’s no new plans and they’ll just do away with this thing.”

Neighbors maintain the development process has not been conducted in good faith, with inspectors trying for more than a month to access the building initially and with nearby residents given no notification about the number of tenants and sex offenders living on the lot.

“It’s disrespectful,” said neighbor Robin Saunders. “He hasn’t really been part of the community process to engage with us as neighbors. So it’s frustrating. But we shall see.”

Sanders and his team have met with the DUN group, but have only described plans for the large lodging house, not a return to a three-family structure. They did not respond to a Reporter request for comment about a new proposal on Tuesday.

Rep. Cullinane said the community members, who say they remain “vigilant” as to future plans, are rightly indignant about the proceedings. “Here we are; they’ve battled front and center to create a measure of engagement with the individual who owns this property, and time and time again there have been missteps,” he said, “the latest of which is when the community has to show up because they don’t believe that the project is actually going to be withdrawn. That’s a problem.”