Neighbors seek to block fast-food opening on River Street

Neighbors concerned about health impacts from a new Burger King restaurant that has been okayed by the Licensing Board for the Riverwood Plaza on River Street in Hyde Park are going to court in an effort to block its opening.

H.E.R.E Justice Coalition, a group of residents from several Mattapan and Hyde Park civic associations, is seeking an injunction against the licensing panel’s approval. A hearing is set in Superior Court on Thurs., July 23, at 3 p.m.

Opponents say that the Licensing Board’s approval was unfair because residents did not get sufficient opportunity to review the proposal after a March public meeting on the topic was cancelled amid the pandemic crisis. They also maintain that their neighborhood is already too dense with fast food options.

“What we were really concerned by is the unhealthy eating that builds and leads to obesity and underlying health conditions, which we know were at the root of COVID-19 morbidity numbers,” said Helena Tonge, president of the Belnel Family Neighborhood Association, one of the coalition members.

“It speaks to the unnecessary and undue burden that fast food places in our communities, particularly when they are in high numbers. There are high concentrations of fast food restaurants in Black and brown neighborhoods, people with economic limitations.”

A similar community reaction resulted last November when a team from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, hoping to open an eatery at 572 Washington Street, was met with fierce opposition from neighbors in Codman Square.

The eatery had been attempting to open for business at the corner of Kenwood Street since 2016, when the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal declined to give permission to the outlet at a time when residents were expressing strong concerns over the lack of healthy food options in the neighborhood.

The company appealed the board’s decision in Suffolk Superior Court, arguing that it was merely modifying an existing restaurant space, which would not require zoning approval.

In December, the Licensing Board voted unanimously to deny a license to the applicants. Chairwoman Kathleen Joyce told the Reporter at the time that the board was persuaded by testimony from residents opposed to the chain that Popeye’s has an “unhealthy menu.”

“The board is responsible for ensuring the public health of our license premises and we found that there was significant and pervasive opposition to it,” Joyce said. “While there was support, I didn’t find it very persuasive.”

In Hyde Park this month, the outcome of a strikingly similar situation awaits a court ruling.

In a phone call with the Reporter last week, Marcia Kimm-Jackson and Tonge explained the involvement of H.E.R.E Justice Coalition, which includes Roseberry-Ruskindale Road Neighborhood Association, Edgewater Drive Neighborhood Association, West Fairmont Hill Group, and Belnel Family Neighborhood Association.

Tonge said that neighbors knew the building would be home to some type of restaurant, but only learned that it would be a Burger King in mid-January.

“I reached out to other groups to find out what they knew, and the only conversation I had heard about was at a River Street Association meeting in December,” she said, adding, “I was kind of shocked that there was no other discussion, and in my opinion, it seemed that everything had already been vetted.”

A second meeting was held in January by the River Street Neighborhood Association, where Tonge said that she and others aired concerns and posed questions about how the project notification was disseminated to the community at-large.

“There was no answer,” she said, “So I shared what was being brought to my attention from my neighbor and neighbors began signing a petition right then.”

Tonge joined neighbors at the Licensing Board’s hearing on Jan. 15, when they were originally scheduled to vote on the project. The board deferred the hearing, and rescheduled it for March 19. That hearing never happened.

“At this time everything was shutting down as Covid was skyrocketing, so we didn’t really have an idea when we could do another meeting. We were just going to wait to see what we would receive,” said Tonge.

Sharon Liszanckie, executive director at Boston Prep School, which sits directly across the street from the proposed site, also wrote a letter in opposition to the Licensing Board in May.

“The primary source of our opposition is related to the promotion of health among our students. The nature of the fast food that Burger King serves is a concern. We are concerned about providing daily access to our school community with food options that are largely considered unhealthy,” she wrote.

In a virtual hearing on May 15, after more than an hour of public testimony, the Licensing Board voted, 2-1, in support of Northeast Food LLC. Chairwoman Joyce and member Liam Curran voted in favor of granting, and member Keeana Saxon voted against.

At the hearing, Joyce said that the “board does take into consideration public support and opposition. I should note that we have received some written support for this as well and I do take the public opposition and the process, but we also look toward public need, and public need is defined as this type of license in this area.”

Tonge told the Reporter that the group opposed to the license had collected 560 petition signatures, 133 letters from residents, and support from Councillors Ricardo Arroyo, Michelle Wu, and Annissa Essaibi-George as well as state Sen. Nick Collins.

Todd Finnard, owner and developer of Fairmount Plaza, told hearing attendees that the reason he bought the mall in 2007 was “because there was such a lack of retail in this part of the city. The whole goal of this development was to take a dilapidated paper mill and build a shopping center because there’s nothing in that immediate vicinity.”

In an email to the Reporter last week, Finnard issued the following statement: "No comment with regard to Burger King.....We've had a 13-year relationship with this neighborhood that has been nothing but positive. Working with City Hall and the local community, we have transformed a dormant paper mill into a vibrant amenity within the neighborhood. We're excited to see The Shops at Riverwood continue to evolve."

The Licensing Board’s appeal process includes a 30-day filing window, and scheduling for Superior Court review. For now, a preliminary injunction prohibits the developers from opening before the July 23 hearing.