Mixed response to condo project near Codman Square

A rendering of the proposed 3 Aspinwall Rd. project from RODE Architects.

A proposed 34-unit condominium project was the subject of an at-times contentious public meeting Monday night in Codman Square. Some residents worried that the project sited near the corner of Washington Street and Aspinwall Road was out of step with the surrounding area and could contribute to displacement and gentrification. Others said they liked the project and that overarching policy issues like affordability standards were a citywide matter.

Shanti Acquisition LLC — the developer— hopes to build a 34,200-square foot building with 29 underground parking spaces at the former site of Nelson Manor nursing home at 3 Aspinwall Rd. Dormant for decades, the facility has been boarded up since 1995.

The project team would demolish the existing building and build a new four-story building with underground parking and 7,800 square feet of landscaped open space around it. The new building’s exterior structure is designed to look like a collection of individual houses, though it will be connected with common space in the center like a normal condo complex.

Above ground floors would have a combination of studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and duplex residential units. Four would be designated affordable units under the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy.

On Monday, dozens of people sat in the Great Hall operated by the Codman Square Health Center for a short presentation from RODE Architects on changes made to the project over the course of five prior community meetings, including a one-story reduction in overall height and drop of six units. The meeting was the second hosted by the Boston Planning and Development Agency and the public comment period has been extended until July 19.

Marilyn Chase, who managed the meeting and represented Shanti Acquisition, said as a 15-year Dorchester resident that she is confident this development team chose homeownership units and this project because they are “interested in building equity and stabilizing neighborhoods.”

The issue of neighborhood stability emerged almost immediately in the question-and-answer portion.

“My concern is with gentrification,” said Rev. Joseph Rocha, a sentiment echoed by others. Rocha said, “Even when I was at [Grace Church of All Nations], brothers and sisters are saying they can’t even live in the neighborhood. They don’t have that money to pay one of the prices that these developers are asking.”

He wants the proponents to think about “how are you displacing people? How are communities changing in complexion?”

Much of the pushback focused on the scale of the lot itself and potential traffic and parking impacts. The 29 spots under the building, with the garage accessible near the intersection with Washington Street, would be designated to residents parking on a “first-come first-serve” basis.

Melissa Manley, a neighbor on Aspinwall Road, said that the number of units is simply “way too much for that spot — we don’t have parking as it is already.” She noted the forthcoming Popeyes restaurant nearby that she expects will drive up traffic as well.

Another woman who declined to give her name said, “I’m for something, just not all of that,” and asked about the soil and detritus removal process for the site on behalf of other neighbors. The development team said it would all be removed in the construction process.

Some attendees pushed for a unit count that reflected the zoning of the area, insisting that only nine units would be appropriate. Others asked for more affordable housing units.

Not all comments were in opposition.

Elaine James, a long-time homeowner a few blocks away, said she had spoken to local business owners and “the business community was enthusiastic.”

“They wanted the kind of people who would help build businesses, who would shop in the neighborhood, being able to afford some of the things that are around so the community could grow together like other areas of the, like the Roslindales and JPs,” said James.
The building is “an opportunity,” James said. “Is it perfect? No, but it fits parts that are important to me and that’s homeownership.”

Affordability and neighborhood character are valid concerns, said Cheryl Antoine, but the criticism in the meeting was misplaced. The local business owner and long-time advocate noted she has worked with groups like Dorchester Not For Sale and Reclaim Roxbury and is very familiar with the gentrification worries.

“We are having the wrong conversation with the wrong set of people,” she said in the meeting. “I look at the adjustments that was made [to the design], and it’s a beautiful thing. The folks that will be loving in those units are going to look like me. There are people that can afford it.”

She and Chase noted that there is a demand for smaller homeownership units in the area.

“I know how this works because I’ve been there, but tonight I’m in support of this,” Antoine said. “I’m tired of our neighborhood looking a certain way. The 10,000 cars are already here. What we need to do is take our argument and fight to the mayor, not to a developer such as this individual, because he’s working to help us.”

Another woman in the middle of the room began yelling over Antoine in disagreement, cutting her off several more times. When Chase offered the woman the microphone after the exchange, she said she did not want to say anything.

Jeff Durham, a candidate for city council in District 4 who lives on Talbot Avenue in Codman Square, took his turn at the microphone to share his desire to see the site turned into a nursing home again.

He identified himself as a candidate for public office and read the entirety of a press release to the assembled crowd, though BPDA project manager John Campbell protested that it was not a political event and later apologized to the group for the political nature of Durham’s comment.

“I think that a better use of the former nursing home is in finding ways to increase job opportunities and not expensive housing,” Durham read. “I believe we can find economic development for the site that brings jobs and nurtures the existing community with sustainable jobs that creates stability.”

Chase said they did examine the possibility of running a nursing home at the site, but determined it was not a financially viable move. She cited news reports on the decline of the nursing home industry due to lack of supports and decreasing demand.

“Nursing home care is a dying industry,” Chase said, “not just in Massachusetts but everywhere.”

Durham also criticized his opponent— City Council President Andrea Campbell, whom Durham claimed supports the Aspinwall Road project. Councillor Campbell’s office said she has taken no position on the project and will not until the community process runs its course.

BPDA staff will review feedback from the meeting and determine whether there should be additional community meetings, project manager John Campbell said. He encouraged attendees to submit comments to him directly or through the project page on the BPDA’s website.

“Your feedback will go a long way to helping us understand how public feels about it,” he said.