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Peace Garden neighbors cut through city red tape

Rachel Dolin

The BRA has a three-step process for the legal transfer of land to another owner, said Betsy Johnson, the land trust’s president and founder. Ten years ago, the trust received “tentative designation” for the vacant lot, proceeding to the second step, which involved submitting a proposal for a future project.

Though the trust spent the next eight years maintaining the lot, the last step of “final designation” never occurred, Johnson said.

“That’s when the land trust, in all honesty, fell short,” she said.

Last winter, a class of five graduate students from the Boston Architectural College teamed up with the Roxbury neighborhood to construct a performance area on the site.

“Basically, they wanted shade, they wanted a place to perform and they wanted the sense of the plaza here,” said Charles Garcia, co-director of the project. “So what we did is … design a series of concrete benches and a performance area. In these benches, there are going to be a series of music posts that will hold up a canopy.”

But when it came time to pour the concrete, the BRA halted work, expressing liability concerns. In a letter dated May 30 addressed to Johnson and Karen Nelson of the Boston Architectural College, BRA Director John F. Palmieri requested that they “cease and desist from any and all construction on the BRA property.”

The city’s problem was an adjacent cobblestone driveway.

“We were concerned with the occupancy of BRA land that’s about 850 square feet, that’s a cobblestone driveway adjacent to the Frederick Douglass peace park,” BRA spokesperson Susan Elsbree said. “[It was] the fact that the Boston Architectural [College] was designing plans and there had been some disruption to cobblestones we spent a lot of money laying down; it was not that we didn’t want the project to move forward.”

Johnson, along with Grichting and other members of the neighborhood, met with the BRA and its lawyers throughout June to try to reach a resolution.

Community members concerned about the status of its project called on state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, City Councilor Chuck Turner and state Rep. Byron Rushing for support.

“[The BRA was] threatening us, the college and the existence of the peace garden,” said Cheo Solder, a resident and active community voice. “We had a meeting with them and they had two lawyers. …

“We don’t care who owns this land,” he continued. “We just care that the community has come together. This was a garbage dump before, they allowed it to descend into nothing and now they [were] talking to us about liability?”

Now, they’re talking to residents about completing what was started. On July 17, the BRA board voted to let the project proceed; Johnson anticipates holding further discussions regarding the final transfer of land to the land trust.

While the architectural college’s project was originally slated to be completed in June, the students remain optimistic, hoping to finish the project in early September, said Garcia. Community members said the neighborhood plans to hold a celebration in September when the project is completed.

“There’s no way they were going to stop us from [finishing construction],”

Grichting said. “It’s a community space, and I think the [BRA] realized how much community involvement there was here and how important it is.”