Partners HealthCare System, the state’s largest hospital and physician organization, delivered some withering news to Boston this week: The medical group is opting for Somerville over Boston as the future site for the merger of administrative services involving 4,500 employees.
From a pure real-estate perspective, Assembly Row in Somerville makes perfect sense for Partners. The health care group gets to consolidate 14 administrative and back office sites in one upwardly mobile location graced with access to Interstate 93 and a future subway stop at its doorstep. Its neighbors will include top-of-the-line shops and services, including Brooks Brothers, Le Creuset French cookware, and Legoland Discovery Center. What’s not to like about this setup?
Basically, everything. As a nonprofit, mission-driven organization, Partners should adopt a higher standard of practice when siting its facilities. The hospital group, which includes Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, is at the top of the healing professions. But its role isn’t limited to clinical medicine. The group also has the responsibility to heal communities, especially if presented with an obvious opportunity. Its own mission statement speaks to a need “to touch the communities we serve.’’
A few months ago, Boston city officials and Partners started to discuss how the hospital group’s consolidation plan might also yield better job, educational, and economic opportunities for struggling Bostonians. City officials pitched potential sites in the Charlestown Navy Yard and Allston. But the real effort focused on so-called Parcel 3 at the intersection of Tremont and Whittier streets in Roxbury, which sits across from Boston Police Headquarters.
This edge of Roxbury has never fully recovered from an effort in the 1970s to build a superhighway connector through the area. The misguided highway project was abandoned. Sadly, so was the neighborhood for many years. Parcel 3, however, still shows strong potential as a development site, including good T access and proximity to the Longwood Medical Center. The creation of 700,000 square feet of new office space and the arrival of thousands of workers would have been a game-changer for Roxbury on a par with the construction of the Vertex headquarters in the city’s burgeoning Innovation District.
Parcel 3’s neighbors include Roxbury Community College and the Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. These institutions are ready to work with Partners to design courses that fit the job market. Careers in information technology, finance, medical record keeping, software services, and other areas would have been just steps away. So would talented administrators who could serve as adjunct professors and mentors.
Few understand how this works better than Partners president Gary Gottlieb. He chairs the board of the Boston Private Industry Council, which specializes in putting low-income Boston students on career pathways. And there is no shortage of corporate philanthropists on the Partners board, which makes the choice all the more surprising and disappointing.
“We presumed we were preaching to the choir,’’ said Boston Redevelopment Authority director Peter Meade, “when we might have been singing to a heretic.’’
Partners vice president Rich Copp stressed that the organization will continue to maintain its corporate headquarters and roughly 10 million square feet of space in Boston. But Partners estimates that it would cost $50 million more to build the project in Boston than it will in Somerville. And that didn’t sit well with an organization struggling to bring down the cost of health care, said Copp.
Mayor Tom Menino scoffs at the $50 million price differential and called Partners’ decision “a big disgrace.’’ Besides, say members of the Menino administration, Partners is sitting pretty on almost $3 billion worth of tax-exempt property in the city. If taxed at the commercial rate, Partners would have to pony up $92 million annually, according to the city assessor’s office. Meanwhile, it pitches in about $14 million in voluntary payments in lieu of taxes and community benefits.
It’s safe to assume that Partners would have warmed up to the parcel in Roxbury if Menino had been sticking around for another four years. After all, he understands power and how to wield it to help the city’s poor. With Menino out of the way, however, the temptation to embrace a hot new address in Somerville could only grow stronger.
That still leaves one problem: When Partners slammed the door on Roxbury, the health care leader fractured its own value system.