Emerald Necklace group, 16 citizens file suit to halt White Stadium plans

Renee Welch, of Egleston Square, is one of 16 plaintiffs named in a lawsuit that was filed in Suffolk Superior Court on Tuesday that seeks to block a public-private plan to renovate White Stadium and use it, in part, as the home for a women's professional soccer franchise. File photo by Seth Daniel

The Emerald Necklace Conservancy (ENC) and 15 citizen plaintiffs from Boston and Brookline filed a lawsuit last Tuesday (Feb. 20) in Suffolk Superior Civil Court to stop a proposal to renovate White Stadium in Franklin Park, a plan they contend is the “unconstitutional privatization of public land.”

Officials from ENC and several of the plaintiffs held an online press conference the next day to discuss the suit.

ENC President Karen Mauney-Brodek, of the South End, said they want the Wu administration to slow down and reconsider the deal that would transfer the stadium to a for-profit investment group, Boston Unity Soccer Partners. The company seeks to renovate half of the stadium while the city renovates the other half for use by a women’s professional soccer team and for what the city contends is an expansion of three times the stadium’s number of usable hours.

On legal grounds, Mauney-Brodek said, they are challenging the determination that the Public Lands Protection Act (Article 97) is not applicable in this case, and asserting that the deal itself is a violation of the provisions of the George Robert White Trust, which owns the stadium.

“Our lawsuit alleges that the proposed redevelopment of White Stadium by Boston Unity Soccer Partners, a for-profit investment group, would not only violate the White Fund Trust and (Article 97) by transferring public land for private use and excluding members of the public from using the stadium, but it also would fundamentally alter the nature and feel of a significant portion of Franklin Park, and perhaps the whole park, in effect, during the majority of fair-weather weekends each year,” she said.

Noting that ENC supports a renovation of the stadium, she added, “Rather than turning over the stadium to a private group of investors, we would like to focus on improving the stadium and the rest of Franklin Park with the funds the city has identified in true private philanthropy without strings attached.”

Mayor Wu fired back at the lawsuit in comments made to the media while visiting the Boston Children’s Festival on Boston Common last Wednesday.

“To say this would be privatizing White Stadium is either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation,” she said. “This would dramatically allow us to expand the number of usable hours for our student athletes and for the community – more than tripling the usage. The professional team would use 10 percent of those hours. I’m really excited what this represents for our city and our kids, and I’m determined to fight for every opportunity for them.”

Wu said the city’s opinion is that Article 97 claims are without merit and don’t apply to White Stadium – because it already exists.

“It’s true that if this were any other park, we couldn’t just build a stadium out of nowhere without a special process for that, but this is an existing stadium that’s been used by and dedicated to BPS student athletes and it will continue to be used that way; these are legal claims without merit,” she added.

While the hours for track and field and soccer would be increased greatly, city officials have already indicated that football games for Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy – around 10 to 12 games per year – would have to be moved out of White Stadium, the historic home to Boston Public School (BPS) football. It is believed that the grass turf would not be able to withstand a football game only one day prior to a pro soccer games on Saturdays.

One alternative being suggested is to move the football teams to Clemente Field in the Fenway for season play. They would be able to return to White Stadium for Thanksgiving rivalry games after the pro soccer season ends. The pro team would use the stadium for approximately 20 games and 20 practices.

Ben Taylor, chair of the ENC Board and a Brookline resident, said the Conservancy joined with the citizens “reluctantly” because they’re not prone to filing lawsuits and have never sued anyone in their 25-year history.

“We want to continue to work with the community who for decades have suffered from environmental justice issues, and we want to work with the City of Boston as well to find a way to restore White Stadium and continue to restore Franklin Park without privatizing it,” he said.

Residents who signed onto the lawsuit said they feel like they are being kicked out of their park, not being listened to, and displaced for monied interests.

“It saddens me that our city has now decided to cut up our park to the highest bidder without public input or [without asking] the communities surrounding the park how they feel and what they want to see,” said Renee Welch, who grew up on Montebello Road in Jamaica Plain and now lives in Egleston Square. “I’m very passionate about this because this is where my whole family grew up. We played soccer in this park. We played cricket in this park. This was our park. This is our park. This is the same park we would clean up on the weekends when the city forgot about this park.”

She said she feels that City Hall had no credibility in saying students and community would not be eventually moved out. She pointed to the Reggie Lewis Center, Carter Playground in the South End, and the proposed move of the John D. O’Bryant High School from Roxbury to West Roxbury as examples.

“To me, what the mayor is trying to say is broken; it doesn’t seem true,” she said. “If we look at programs for our Black and Brown children, we are not winning, and this White Stadium plan will be another huge fail for our Black and Brown children.”

Derrick Evans, a 40-year resident of Roxbury, said he considers it just another chapter in the story of “Urban Renewal 2.0,” where existing residents are being pushed out.

“The record is already there that City Hall has zero credibility…that children will not be displaced,” he said. “It happened at the Cass, it happened at Carter Playground, it happened in Malcom X Park, and in a grander scale…it’s bound to happen at White Stadium. This is a pandemic situation of the displacement of children, cultural assets, ecological assets in Roxbury and southwest Boston after being left alone for decades and left to fend for themselves and having done so successfully. Now we and the kids are being shifted over here and over here.”

Carla-Lisa Caligua, of Jamaica Plain, noted she comes from a soccer family and has a son who plays soccer at TechBoston Academy. She said she’s excited for women’s soccer in Boston, but not at White Stadium. She and Jamaica Plain’s Melissa Hamel said it didn’t feel like anyone was listening to their concerns.

“It feels like we have no power…It is infuriating that they could use our tax dollars and it almost feels like a done deal. This was handed to us as this great opportunity, but we had no say in it,” said Caligua.

Concluded Welch: “You want to put a pretty bow on it, but there’s nothing pretty about it.”

Besides the ENC, which is based in Jamaica Plain, the plaintiffs include Jon Ball of Jamaica Plain; Bob Barney of the South End; Caligua of Jamaica Plain; Eleanor Chu of the South End; Jeff Cook of Brookline; Louis Elisa of Dorchester; Derrick Evans of Roxbury; Marjorie Greville of Beacon Hill; Hamel of Jamaica Plain; Arleen Mattison of Brookline; Mauney-Brodek of the South End; Jean McGuire of Roxbury; Beverly Merz of the South End; Taylor of Brookline; Welch of Egleston Square; and Pamela Jones of Mattapan.

Those named in the lawsuit include the City of Boston, the Trustees of the George Robert White Fund, Mayor Michelle Wu, Council President Ruthzee Louijeune, City Auditor Maureen Joyce, Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO James Rooney, Boston Bar Association President Hannah Kilson, and Boston Unity Soccer Partners, LLC.

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