Joan Wallace-Benjamin is not a person who goes looking for controversy. Yet here she is mired in one, and it shows no sign of quick resolution.
Wallace-Benjamin is head of the Home for Little Wanderers. Its Dickensian name reflects its status as perhaps America’s oldest social service agency. The Home serves 7,000 families a year, all of them with children struggling with behavioral or developmental issues. Since 1914, a lot of this service was provided from a bucolic setting in Jamaica Plain overlooking the Jamaicaway.
About a decade ago, the board of the home, which is more than 200 years old, realized that the organization was running low on cash. Not only that, its real estate had fallen into severe disrepair. One plan after another for salvaging the property was rejected — mostly, Wallace-Benjamin says, because renovating the buildings would have cost millions that the organization simply didn’t have to devote to it. One estimate came in at $50 million.
“We simply couldn’t afford to stay here,” Wallace-Benjamin said.
So the venerable agency decided to follow in the path of many nonprofits with terrific real estate and cash problems: It decided to sell out. Developer Curtis Kemeny, a Brookline native who grew up near the Home, has agreed in principle to buy the property, raze the buildings, and build luxury apartments. The Home began moving its JP operation to a farm in Walpole.
“We really need to sell this property,” Wallace-Benjamin said one morning last week. “This is critical for the future of the organization.” No doubt that is true. But in Jamaica Plain, the notion of $3,000-a-month apartments is not going over well.
In a neighborhood where even a new Whole Foods caused consternation, residents are positively apoplectic about the plan for the home. They will no doubt express those concerns at City Hall tomorrow, where the Zoning Board of Appeal will decide whether to approve the variances that the project depends on.
Two neighborhood groups — the Jamaica Pond Association and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council — have resoundingly rejected the plan. What do they object to? Pretty much all of it.
“There’s basically been 100 percent opposition on this,” said Benjamin Day of the Neighborhood Council. “It gets compared to the Whole Foods controversy, but it is very different. Basically, both sides of the Whole Foods issue are united against this.”
It’s easy to understand why some want to preserve the buildings, but they must not have walked through them lately. The property is a mix of tired, sagging buildings on an ideal site for something new. No wonder there is a quiet war raging.
It isn’t as if there haven’t been serious efforts to compromise. After a year of community meetings — a proud JP tradition — Kemeny has agreed to increase the number of affordable units in the building. In response to complaints that the planned development would not have families in it, he agreed to include a few three-bedroom units, which will rent for a small fortune.
Predictably, the changes have not satisfied the critics. Kemeny said the latest plan calls for 30 units of affordable housing; Day said he thought another 10 might be enough to quell some opposition. Some residents, noting that other buildings in the area have been preserved, want to save the buildings. The developer says renovation is simply too expensive.
Of course, this fight is about more than housing. Jamaica Plain has changed economically in ways that make many people uncomfortable. Its historic balance of poor, middle-class, and affluent is teetering, and you can guess which class is growing. The battle to keep JP “affordable” is being waged development by development. Even now, a similar battle is brewing over another development barely a block away.
In the middle of this sits an important agency that needs to get out. Whether they can sell out is an open question. “We’ve been here for 200 years,” Wallace-Benjamin said. “And we want to be here 200 more.”