Early objection around proposed Uphams Corner pot shop

A proposal for opening a recreational marijuana shop in Uphams Corner landed with a thud at a preliminary meeting with the Hancock Street Civic Association last week.

Benjamin Virga and his business partner at Bridgestone Realty Corporation have worked as property managers in the Dorchester and Mattapan areas for about a decade, he said. They plan to get into cultivation and distribution of recreational marijuana, and have begun the process of acquiring 33 Hancock St., the current site of the Kriola restaurant, for their shop.

Last Thursday night was not a city-organized meeting, but intended as a discussion with civic member officers and Virga. It nonetheless resulted in a packed room with a few dozen attendees from the neighborhood, nearby businesses, and elected officials’ offices.
Opposition was stated to varying degrees throughout.

“I’m in vehement opposition to this in the residential neighborhood that we are, and in consultation with the neighbors we are fighting this until the very end,” Bob Jones, of Trull Street, said about halfway into the hour-and-a-half meeting, before asking a question of Virga’s business model.

Why, several asked, did Virga not come to the civic groups when he was first considering the site, rather than after there was already a purchase and sale agreement in place and an initial application was already denied?

“Amazingly, the City of Boston’s process is incredibly clear and simple,” Virga said, walking residents through the steps to open a marijuana dispensary. Any hopeful retailer will find a site, submit an application for an alteration of use permit — which is automatically denied because of existing zoning, appeal it to the Board of Appeal, and begin a community process.

They applied for the change of use permit from a restaurant to a recreational cannabis dispensary in mid-May. “At that time we were told by the city that we were not to have any discussions or community meetings,” Virga said. “Community meetings would be happening in the normal part of the process, so we honored and respected that.”

Virga expects to receive a Zoning Board hearing date “any day now,” he told the Reporter on Tuesday.

Concerns raised in the meeting surrounded two general areas. Traffic was a major issue, with residents pointing to the narrow roadway with limited parking in a closely-clustered residential enclave. News reports, which the civic group members shared in emails after the meeting, describe long lines at peak hours at new marijuana shops in states that have legalized cannabis like California and Colorado.

Another worry seemed to be rooted in discomfort with the type of business itself, even though the immediate community voted to legalize by about 65 percent in 2016, and several studies from 2017 and 2018 year have found no positive correlation with crime and legal pot shops.
Virga did not disclose many details on his business plan at the meeting.

“We’re really focused on the cultivation aspect of it,” he said. “A lot of dispensaries are going to be selling “third-party product,” meaning they will buy wholesale from somebody else and sell it. That’s not our business model. We prefer cultivating in another community in Massachusetts, but our model is strictly based on cultivation of what we’re selling.”

His ballpark estimate of how much traffic it would generate —10 to 15 people an hour — disturbed those who spoke. A floor plan submitted by Virga to the city shows a secure entrance on Hancock Street and an exit behind the building.

Robert Mickiewicz, whose family owns the lot behind the Hancock Street site, said it cannot possibly be used as a parking lot. There is a deed restriction on the property mandating that nothing be done with it “without [also] selling 7 Whittemore where I live today, and if 7 Whittemore is sold, I’m on the street. I’m not going on the street.”

Throughout the meeting, residents of the Uphams Corner area told Virga to put the dispensary “on Newbury Street” or “next to City Hall.” Anywhere but 33 Hancock St.

“As far as choosing your neighborhood or this neighborhood, part of the choice was based on options,” Virga said.

It can be a trial to find a suitable location for a potential site, he said, which is limited by a half-mile buffer between any licensed marijuana dispensary and 500 feet from any school or significant gathering place for children. Add in the cutthroat Boston real estate market, and prospective retailers have slim pickings to sift through. Virga’s team put in bids for the Hancock Street location and one in Mattapan Square, the latter which was not accepted.

There is a complication with the building itself, currently occupied by the operators of the Kriola restaurant with two and a half year left on their lease. Stephen Bingham, who owns it, told Virga he will deliver the premises empty. Some members of Kriola’s ownership were in attendance and at a loss for how the property would be turned over early.

33 Hancock St. is also zoned for residential, though a restaurant has occupied it as a conditional use for years even before Kriola. If there is no longer a restaurant there, the zoning reverts back to residential.

Some in attendance voted for recreational cannabis to be legalized, they noted, but not with the expectation that it would end up on a corner of their predominantly residential street.

Arminda Baptista, who would live behind the shop, worried about the customers hanging around after patronizing the store.

“I will refuse to have that back there with a four-year-old,” she said, “because you cannot control people walking out that back door with an empty lot there, that they will not sit there and get high. You can’t control it. Not in Dorchester.”

Virga said there would be cameras inside and outside the building, and that security would patrol around the site 24-7.

He compared their clientele to those frequenting a craft beer and wine store or a coffee shop. “This is not the kind of business where people come in and buy and go outside and use the parking lot,” he said.

The permitting and licensing process is so strict that if state inspectors do a random drop by and find anything amiss, the shop would be shut down immediately and their license revoked. Fears about marijuana shops sparking an increase in crime are not borne out by research on the topic, he also noted.

“It’s California, it’s Las Vegas, it’s Colorado, it’s the same every time over,” Virga said. “Dispensaries do not lead to an increase in crime, they’ve been shown in other parts of the country to lead to a decrease in crime.”

Because of the amount of security associated with businesses of the type, they sometimes contribute to a reduction in existing crime, occupying buildings that may have otherwise been vacant and keeping cameras pointed outward at the surrounding area.

Virga shared the general safety trends with the group, which reacted skeptically or dismissively. They know the neighborhood, they said. They have a higher incidence of crime to begin with.

“I can tell you something,” said Marti Glynn, visibly emotional. “If you open that, my grandchildren will never be allowed to come to my house again. We had a shooting on the street last summer, and it has only been in the past month or so that my son and my daughter-in-law have felt safe enough to let my grandchildren come to see me.”

Virga said after the meeting that he understands the civic group’s concerns and looks forward to future meetings. He is optimistic about the prospect. “It can be a game changer for the neighborhood,” he said.