The old St. Catherine of Siena School, near the Bunker Hill housing project, has been a shuttered eyesore for a decade, a hole in the heart of Charlestown.
So when the notion of opening a health center on the site was floated about a year ago, it was quickly and enthusiastically embraced by the neighborhood.
The North End Waterfront Community Health Center stepped forward to turn that idea into a reality, laying out a plan to open a health center in the old school and a pharmacy in a building nearby. Add to that a plan to make legal the food pantry that has for years operated without the required zoning approval in yet another nearby building.
Everyone, it seemed, liked the plan. The neighborhood association was on board. The mayor gave the idea his blessing. US Representative Michael Capuano wrote a letter in support.
Ah, but none of them sits on the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal. The board grants zoning variances — or refuses to. With a public process, but little public attention, they can make your project or kill it.
So it was that the proposed health center was denied the needed variances in September, even though the variances were relatively minor and support for the project was wide.
Much of the opposition to the plan on the appeals board came from members affiliated with major labor unions.
As it happens, the developer of the property, Suffolk Cos. (not to be confused with the politically wired Suffolk Construction Co.), had run afoul of a couple of those unions not long before, on an unrelated project. According to Suffolk owner Michael Rauseo, the unions had demanded that all the jobs on one of his projects be given to union workers, a demand Rauseo resisted. Coincidentally, or maybe not, labor activists helped to block his next project, the health center and pharmacy.
After that vote, Suffolk Cos. immediately threatened legal action to overturn the board’s unusually wrongheaded decision. And so it got a second opportunity before the board Tuesday, as it took the unusual step of revisiting a previous decision.
Once again, the board was confronted with unanimous support from the neighborhood.
“I believe this is going to be very beneficial to my community,” said Betty Carrington of the Charlestown Neighborhood Council. “I think this is one of the best things that could happen in our community.”
Other residents offered equally effusive testimony. Even a former chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeal, Joseph D. Feaster Jr., spoke on behalf of the project, brushing aside many of the concerns raised by his former colleagues.
There was predictable pushback from the bureaucrats. One of the union representatives on the committee, Mark Fortune, grumbled that he was not convinced that labor was guaranteed enough jobs. Others worried about approving office space in a residential area. For a while, it looked like the appeals board might once again come down on the wrong side.
Their objections were pushed aside by Sister Nancy Citro of St. Mary-St. Catherine of Siena parish, the last of the speakers.
“I understand your argument against setting a precedent,” she said. “But there are people who need help now. These are our people. We know their name; they are part of our parish. I ask you to approve this for the people who are there now.”
Suddenly the bureaucrats saw the light. Most of the required approvals came easily, with only a couple of nonessential features rejected. As a result, Charlestown will get its new health center and pharmacy. The result was heartening, but the thin line between a good decision and a bad one was disconcerting.
A relieved Jim Luisi, chairman of the health center, said the new facility will ease a burden for residents who now often have to travel for medical and dental care. Said Luisi: “It’s so important to have this in their own neighborhood.”