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Proposed live-in tech program sparks neighborhood conflict in Roxbury

Mandile Mpofu
Proposed live-in tech program sparks neighborhood conflict in Roxbury
This property on Hutchings Street in Dorchester is the proposed location for G{Code} House, a live-in tech training program. The required zoning variance has received opposition from a group of neighbors. PHOTO: Mandile Mpofu

On Hutchings Street, a relatively tranquil residential roadway off Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury, stands an old, fenced house with a light blue facade and darker blue accents.

Recently, the three-tiered property has been at the center of a neighborhood dispute after a proposal to convert the space into a “state-of-the-art tech center” began advancing. A group of abutters who oppose the project, called G{Code} House, say it would do more harm than good.

G{Code}, a nonprofit founded by Bridgette Wallace, an urban planner and the organization’s executive director, offers tech-centered training and apprenticeship programs for women and non-binary people of color.

The program currently operates online, but its team plans to expand its offerings soon by renovating the house to open a 14-person live-in tech community that would “intertwine tech education with affordable housing,” according to G{Code}’s website.

The proposal has been met with backlash from a group of abutters who say the G{Code} House is not in the community’s best interest, primarily due to the zoning change required to build the G{Code} House.

Currently, the property is classified as “residential” under the Boston Zoning Code, which dictates what can be built on properties, explained David Supple, the CEO of New England Design and Construction, the building contractor for the project.

Before the company begins the construction project — with an estimated development cost of $4.2 million — the property will need to be classified as “transitional housing,” a technical term that matches the G{Code} House’s dimensional and occupancy needs.

But neighbors are worried that the zoning change, known as a variance, would bring unwelcome changes to a street they said is already losing its identity.

“The fact that it’s in the middle of the block … threatens the integrity of the entire street,” said Marilyn Chase, a Hutchings Street resident of 43 years. She added that she is worried the zoning change would increase density, bringing more cars and foot traffic to a street with already tight parking and limited access to public transportation.

Mayowa “MO” Osinubi, who has lived on Hutchings Street for 30 years, described the street as an intergenerational family neighborhood occupied by a diverse group of individuals. The street, she said, has already fallen “victim” to other proposed projects, including three transitional housing properties at the end of the street.

“We’re losing the fabric of our communities to these projects, and it’s being dressed up as, ‘Oh, this program is lovely,’” Osinubi said.

Wallace initially purchased the property in 2015 for residential purposes, she said. But when she founded G{Code}, she saw potential in the house. She added that she always intended it to have a live-in program, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the organization’s plans.

G{Code} has over 300 graduates, many of whom have obtained entry-level positions at well-known tech companies, Wallace said, but one of the main barriers G{Code}’s program participants face is food and housing insecurity. The house, modeled after settlement houses, would provide participants with shelter for up to two years while being a “value-add” to the neighborhood.

“Hopefully it will bring … a deeper sense of community because … the concept is built off of community,” said Wallace. She added that G{Code} House would be a space where young people interested in tech will “be supported, nurtured and encouraged” to pursue their goals and “also learn to give back to their community.”

Abutters said they do not necessarily oppose G{Code}’s mission but are instead concerned about what the zoning change would mean for the future of Hutchings Street, particularly if the G{Code} House is not successful.

“We will have no control,” said Ollie Osinubi, Mayowa Osinubi’s mother and a Hutchings Street resident since 1992. “We’ll be victim to whoever owns it to run whatever business they want to run.”

Zoning changes are common in Boston, Supple said, because many existing buildings do not conform to existing zoning codes. To change the property’s zoning, the project proposers will have to go through an approval process that involves seeking community input and will culminate in a hearing at the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals.

Similarly, should the G{Code} House project end and the property be sold, the buyers would need to return to the Zoning Board of Appeals “for permission to utilize the facilities” for transitional housing purposes, Supple explained in an email to the Banner.

Wallace said the property would be classified as “transitional housing” for up to 20 years. After that, according to Supple, the property could revert to residential or multi-family housing should the G{Code} House not continue.

At a recent Garrison-Trotter Neighborhood Association meeting, neighbors voted 7 to 4 in favor of the project, according to Louis Elisa, president of the association, which Supple said indicated that only a small minority are against the project.

Hutchings Street residents said the neighborhood association vote did not reflect their priorities.

Of the people who live on the street, “I haven’t heard anyone that is for it,” said Teresa Pregizer, a preschool teacher who has lived on Hutchings Street since 2017. “It’s people that live further away” who think it’s a “great idea, but it doesn’t affect their street.”

The neighbors said they have sent correspondence to the Zoning Board of Appeals and intend to express their opposition before it.

“We want to be heard,” said Mayowa Osinubi.

The neighbors opposing the project said Wallace has not been “forthcoming” or “trustworthy.” In letters to elected officials, they also cited a lack of financial transparency regarding the project’s funding as a concern. Ollie Osinubi added that “a lot of things you can do by just communicating with people.”

Both neighbors and Wallace told the Banner that they have met multiple times in neighborhood association meetings and independently to discuss the project, but Wallace acknowledged that she could have done more from the start.

“I want to be clear that your concerns are heard and are valid,” Wallace said in an email to neighbors after an “impromptu” meeting on May 23. “You haven’t received consistent updates as regularly as you should have been and my hope is to change that starting today.”

In the email, Wallace said she and G{Code} would work to schedule meetings to clarify the terms of the variance.

The G{Code} House has received support from City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson who, in a statement to the Bay State Banner said the council office’s responsibility is “to think about the big picture of what our community stands for.”

“Anytime our city has the opportunity to fight displacement, promote equity, and prioritize our most vulnerable residents, we have an obligation to work with the developers and with the community to ensure that it is a quality, worthwhile experience,” she said. “Having spoken with residents and representatives from G{Code}, I am confident that they will deliver on that quality experience for young women and girls throughout the community.”

Supple said he hopes to have permits by the end of the year for the construction project, which will take one to two years. G{Code} has yet to schedule its meeting with the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Boston Zoning Code, G{Code}, Garrison-Trotter Neighborhood Association, Hutchings Street, roxbury