Highway access and convenient transit make Somerville a hot development venue — and explain a lot about why Partners HealthCare System decided to consolidate all its administrative operations in Somerville, not Roxbury.
But a recent editorial in the Bay State Banner suggested another possible motive: “One must wonder whether Partners officials involved in the decision had any concern about locating in an area with a substantial African-American population,” wrote Melvin B. Miller, chief editor and publisher of the newspaper, which primarily serves Boston’s African-American community.
Partners strongly rebuts Miller’s speculation. Community demographics “never came up,” said Partners vice president Rich Copp. The decision to move to Somerville’s Assembly Row was based on cost and commuter-access considerations, he said.
With some 4,500 non-hospital employees moving out of 14 work sites in Charlestown, Wellesley, and Needham, among other locales, Partners contends that Somerville offered the best location and savings. The health care giant projects its employees will be driving some 2,500 to 3,000 cars into Somerville. In Roxbury, those drivers faced parking challenges and a congested Melnea Cass Boulevard. In Somerville, a new Orange Line T stop will stop at Partners’ front door, and those who commute by car have a straight shot to work via Interstate 93.
In short, according to Partners, choosing Somerville was strictly business — just like Jacoby Ellsbury moving from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees.
The race card is easy to play and hard to refute. The issue is especially sensitive in Boston, a city whose past was fraught with racial tensions. Today’s Boston is more diverse, and there’s more bridge-building across racial and ethnic lines. As a Boston institution, Partners stands out as a major employer and civic player. After the move to Somerville, it will maintain more than 40,000 employees in Boston. It has invested tens of millions of dollars in community health centers and scholarships for Boston-area school children.
But Miller stands by the issue he raised.
“If you’re asking if I have solid evidence that would hold up to a challenge, no, I don’t have such evidence,” he said in an interview. “The only evidence I have is that this has happened before. I wonder if this is what we’re facing all over again.”
Crushed hopes from a cycle of canceled Roxbury development proposals are the foundation for his current suspicions. For example, plans to move two state agencies to Roxbury locations fell through. So did a proposal for a Roxbury “megaplex” — a combined convention center and sports arena.
Miller believes Roxbury faces persistent, negative perceptions that influence decisions like the one made by Partners, even if no one ever voices them out loud during a board meeting. Some perceptions about Roxbury are rooted in a lack of knowledge about the transformation going on in certain parts of the community; others are rooted in the reality of neighborhood crime statistics.
Miller credits Mayor Thomas M. Menino with putting Roxbury back on the city’s development map. A project in Dudley Square is slated to be the new headquarters for the Boston Public Schools. Bartlett Yard on Washington Street will feature housing and retail. Then there’s Tremont Crossing on Ruggles Street, which includes office space, parking, retail, and restaurants, as well as a museum featuring African-American artists.
The city was wooing Partners as a major Tremont Crossing tenant. But it chose another path, which rankled Menino. He blasted Partners for turning its back on what he considers its “fiduciary responsibility” to Boston, given its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit and its overall mission “to help people.” Menino also acknowledged that his lame-duck status might have made it easier for Partners to ignore his wishes.
“I understand I don’t have the clout I used to have,” he said during a recent interview at the Globe. “But it shouldn’t be about that.”
The choice to go to Assembly Row is a big deal for Somerville — and a disappointing outcome for Boston. The health care giant has the right to think about its bottom line. The mayor has the right to ask if bottom-line thinking should drive a tax-exempt nonprofit.
And given development history, Roxbury has the right to ask if this decision is about more than the color of money.