Community rips BRA at Parcel 3 meeting

Yawu Miller | 4/8/2009, 4:49 a.m.

Roxbury residents who packed an auditorium at the Dudley Square branch of the Boston Public Library blasted the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and Mayor Thomas M. Menino during a meeting of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee on Monday.

The oversight committee called the meeting to give BRA Director John F. Palmieri the opportunity to explain his agency’s decision to pull the plug on the Elma Lewis Partners LLC development team’s $400 million redevelopment of Parcel 3, a large expanse of long-vacant land on Tremont Street.

Oversight Committee members in January voted unanimously in support of the re-designation of Elma Lewis Partners as the project’s developers.

The controversy over the project has pitted community members against the BRA.

“There is a perception of the BRA in this community,” said Oversight Committee member Beverly Adams. “This would be a good time to change that perception.”

Despite a lengthy explanation of the agency’s dealings with Elma Lewis Partners, however, Palmieri seemed to spark more ire in the audience.

What ensued was nearly two hours of back-and-forth among Palmieri, the developers and angry community members.

The looming standoff between the Oversight Committee and the BRA represents a major challenge for the Menino administration.

In the early years of Menino’s mayoral tenure, Roxbury residents complained of the city selling off land to developers with little or no community input. The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan was meant to change that.

The document, drafted by community residents working with the BRA, was supposed to function as a sort of covenant between the City of Boston and Roxbury residents that would govern the city’s sale of the large parcels of city- and state-owned land cleared during the Urban Renewal program of the 1960s and 1970s.

But while community residents now have a greater say in the drafting of requests for proposals and the selection of developers, many still see the mayor’s hand in the land disposition process.

Perhaps the closest semblance of an olive branch in Monday’s meeting came from Roxbury resident Paula Ross, who told Palmieri that the blame for the de-designation of the site should properly be placed with Menino.

“You have been stabbed in the back by your staff because they want to keep their jobs,” she said to Palmieri. “You have been lied to.”

Ross, like many in the audience, was responding to allegations printed in an April 3, 2009, Boston Herald article that the mayor ordered the Elma Lewis Partners team de-designated as developers after they effectively demoted John Kavanagh, a Menino ally and campaign contributor, who was serving as project manager.

While Menino has denied intervening in the development, the perception of a mayoral hand in BRA decisions remained a constant during Monday’s meeting, with some residents calling for Menino himself to answer to the community.

“I don’t see the mayor here,” said Indya Portlock. “The mayor needs to be here. I’m at the point now where I’m done. I’ve had enough.”

Palmieri responded to the onslaught by repeating assertions that the Elma Lewis Partners did not meet preconditions for development of the site in the year-and-a-half that they were designated developers. Palmieri said the team did not secure financing, test the soil on the site or draw up architectural plans for development.