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Metro

Group is pressed over Chinatown tract

Critics demand site be used for housing

Jeremy Fox for the Boston Globe

The C-Mart supermarket sits on property that was designated for affordable housing nearly three decades ago.

Chinatown leaders say the lack of affordable housing is the neighborhood’s most pressing issue, but for nearly 30 years a key business and social services organization has sat on a prime piece of property intended for that purpose.

Now, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England is expected to sign a new lease that could tie up the property, at Herald and Washington streets, for decades more. As early as Tuesday, the association may vote on a 10-year extension, with two optional five-year extensions to follow, for the C-Mart supermarket.

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That has some in Chinatown crying foul, fueling fresh complaints that the association is ignoring the need for housing in the densely populated neighborhood. Too often, the only housing poor residents can afford is substandard, they say, as seen in February when more than 40 people were evacuated from 25 Harrison Ave. because of concerns about the structural integrity of the apartment building.

In addition, the association’s financial records and independent audits viewed by the Globe show that it has used income from the 50 Herald St. lease for operating expenses for more than a decade, even after the state had raised concerns about use of funds from the property lease. According to a financial statement from last October, the organization used more than $1.2 million of lease income to pay for its operations from 2001 to 2011.

“Whatever comes out of the lease has to be a plan for developing affordable housing,’’ said Bill Moy, a co-moderator of the Chinatown/South Cove Neighborhood Council, who also sits on the association board.

Moy, 77, has gathered more than 150 signatures on a petition addressed to Attorney General Martha Coakley, who oversees all registered charities in the Commonwealth, requesting that an independent trust be created for the property.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office would neither confirm nor deny that the office was looking into the matter.

‘Whatever comes out of the lease has to be a plan for developing affordable housing.’

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Rick Wong, president of the association, did not respond to voice mails and e-mails requesting comment on the property.

Simon Chan, chairman of the association’s asset committee, which oversees its real estate holdings, said income from the lease indirectly helps support affordable housing the association owns at Tai Tung Village and Waterford Place. Without the lease income, Chan said, the association would be bankrupt.

He also insisted that the leasing process was transparent and that the association’s critics were those out of power on the board who wanted to stir up trouble.

“There’s nothing mysterious, nothing improper,’’ he said. “Everything is done in a very fair, professional way.’’

He said C-Mart has offered approximately double its current rent but stressed that all proposals for the site would receive fair consideration.

Billy Chin, a Chinatown patriarch who was president of the association when the 50 Herald St. deal was negotiated, signed Moy’s petition and says he is concerned about how the association has handled the lease income.

“People have a different interpretation,’’ said Chin, 82. “They say, ‘Oh using the rent for doing the other purpose is also serving the community.’ Maybe that’s their argument. . . . But the purpose is not fulfilled.’’

Interest in the land dates to 1983, when Tufts University and the New England Medical Center struck a deal with Chinatown residents: Support institutional expansion and receive a $100,000 scholarship fund, $100,000 for job training, and $600,000 to buy the site at Herald and Washington streets with a stipulation that it be used for development of low-income housing.

The association took ownership of the site on behalf of the community, but the affordable housing never materialized. Since 1993, the association has rented the building as a supermarket, previously as a Super 88 and currently to the C-Mart chain.

A neighborhood institution since at least 1923, the association by the early 1980s was perhaps Chinatown’s largest, most inclusive, and most respected organization, regularly representing the community in dealings with the city and developers.

But over the past two decades, the association has become entangled in lawsuits with other prominent Chinatown organizations - former tenants of its headquarters at 90 Tyler St. - and with some of its own members.

Court documents show that in 2000, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly filed a complaint alleging misappropriation of income from the 50 Herald St. lease, among other charges. As a result, the association enacted a new governance agreement that states that the association will not “convey any real property or interest therein’’ that “involves substantial assets’’ unless “the transaction is in furtherance of the CCBA’s charitable purpose,’’ which includes affordable housing.

Paul K. Chan, 66, who was part of the team that negotiated the Herald Street deal, recently wrote to Coakley urging her to scrutinize the association’s finances and put the property into an independent trust.

“It’s money that could have done a lot of things for Chinatown [that instead is] being diverted to other uses, and when people are living in situations like 25 Harrison Ave.,’’ Chan said.

A Boston Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman said that having recently completed the Harrison-Albany Corridor rezoning process and seeing a surge of new development in the area, the authority would like to see the association take advantage of the new zoning to develop the parcel to its highest and best use.

“We think this is a critical time for the parcel and for all of Chinatown in general,’’ said the spokeswoman, Susan Ellsbree.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremycfox@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. For more coverage of Boston’s neighborhoods and surrounding towns, go to boston.com/yourtown.
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