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Partners’ special status carries special obligation to Boston

Partners has said it expects to occupy up to 700,000 square feet at Assembly Row.

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2012

Partners has said it expects to occupy up to 700,000 square feet at Assembly Row.

Partners HealthCare — the nonprofit that operates Mass. General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals — may be Boston’s single most important corporate entity. It brings billions of dollars, tens of thousands of jobs, and priceless amounts of prestige. It also attracts millions of workers, patients, and visitors. But there’s the rub: If any of the visitors should get into a car accident, the Boston police will disentangle it. If someone slips and falls, Boston EMT will answer the call. If, heaven forbid, there were a fire or other catastrophic event at any of the hospitals, the Boston Fire Department is prepared to undertake the most dauntless of rescues.

But Partners’ contribution to Boston’s tax coffers is relatively tiny — roughly $7 million per year, plus an equivalent amount of community givebacks, on what would be a property tax liability of $92 million. Some Boston taxpayers steam over tax deals for Liberty Mutual or the new Millennium tower, but to a substantial extent, homeowners subsidize services to Partners. It’s a justified tradeoff, given what Partners means for Boston, but it relies on a good-faith commitment on both sides: Taxpayers recognize Partners’ unusual status, and Partners strives to make it pay dividends to Boston.

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That’s why Mayor Menino was so upset when Partners chose to consolidate 4,500 back-office jobs in Somerville’s Assembly Row rather than Roxbury. Partners counters with a variety of responses — from the practical (too much traffic in Roxbury) to the financial (less expensive to build in Somerville). These arguments have some merit, and deserve to be addressed. Perhaps, if every effort were made to enhance the feasibility of the proposed site in Roxbury, it would still fall short. But Partners made its decision before the city offered its best deal, according to the Menino administration, though it’s unclear why that was the case. Still, Partners has yet to acknowledge any moral obligation to try to make the Roxbury proposal work; rather, it suggests its duty is to choose the most workable plan in a bottom-line fashion. That’s a misreading of its responsibilities to its host community — and violates the spirit of its privileged tax status.

Plus, it takes away what may be the best hope for revitalizing an underutilized part of the city and providing jobs to local residents. It’s a terrible blow to Boston, and both Partners and the Menino administration should have found a way to avoid it.

Cleared for a long-abandoned highway project, the Lower Roxbury parcel that Menino had in mind is close to the Ruggles MBTA station and less than a mile from Partners’ crowded campus in the Longwood Medical Area. But the Roxbury site is separated from that cluster of hospitals by narrow, one-way streets, a blockage that can’t be entirely accidental. In the 1980s and early ’90s, those tiny streets served as a buffer between high-crime Roxbury and the economic life of the city. Of course, Roxbury’s isolation had another effect — keeping the city’s largest black community from opportunities available in other neighborhoods.

A lot has changed. Crime is down. The city has reversed its pattern of disinvestment. The once-vacant corridor along Columbus Avenue is now home to Boston’s police headquarters and the expanded campus of Northeastern University, along with Madison Park High School and Roxbury Community College. But the area remains starved for private-sector jobs that residents can easily aspire to — middle-class jobs that don’t require professional degrees or, in come cases, college degrees. That’s where Partners comes in. The back-office jobs include clerks and data entry — jobs that require skills and intelligence, but not the kind of credentials that could only be met by a select few.

The addition of so many workers would have been a boon to locally owned businesses, helping to connect the edges of Roxbury to the Dudley Square commercial area, where the Boston School Department headquarters is moving. For Partners, the area provides an open canvas for future growth — something it needs to consider given the crowding over at Longwood. The back-office jobs could be a toe in the water for future research labs and outpatient centers.

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In response, Partners has, via unnamed sources, suggested that the Somerville site could be built for $50 million less, and offers superior access to Interstate 93. But the city insists that the real differential is far lower, and that it could be driven down even further. Meanwhile, it’s true that Melnea Cass Boulevard, the link between the Roxbury parcel and I-93, can be very crowded at rush hour. But the city has been working with the community on expansion plans. If Partners was committed to the area, it could tilt that discussion toward better access for commuters.

Assembly Row, meanwhile, is worthy of support in its own right. The long-planned project, ably overseen by Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, will help revitalize the Mystic River area. But economically thriving Somerville isn’t the equivalent of Roxbury, even if its working-class residents would welcome the proximity of Partners. More importantly, it’s not the community that has hosted Partners, in good times and bad, for well over a century.

Partners is justified, in a time of intense pressure on health care providers to lower their costs, to seek a cost-effective deal. If, after a fuller negotiation with Boston officials, it were established that the Roxbury site was significantly more costly, Partners would be justified in choosing Somerville. But it’s not clear that the negotiations ever reached that point — certainly, the Menino administration feels they didn’t.

To some extent, the Roxbury proposal was a victim of the transition in city administrations: If Menino were staying on, Partners could rely on its negotiating partner doing all he could to improve access, drive down construction costs, and perhaps show gratitude in other ways, as Partners seeks to improve its existing sites.

But Menino was a lame duck. While he blames Partners for his being blindsided by its decision to choose Somerville, it suggests some lack of awareness within City Hall of the state of negotiations. Then, when Menino reached out to Mayor-elect Martin Walsh for help, nothing visible was forthcoming. Walsh’s only public statement on the matter was so anodyne as to be meaningless. He didn’t even mention Partners.

More substantially, one of the appeals of the Roxbury proposal should have been its proximity to the city’s vocational high school, Madison Park, and Roxbury Community College. But those are struggling institutions, for which the Boston Public Schools and the state bear some responsibility.

Success breeds success, and failure compounds itself. Perhaps if those institutions had done a better job preparing workers, Partners would have found Roxbury more appealing. But it’s also a chicken-egg question. Partners would have been just the spur to invigorate those institutions. The city, the state, the schools, the hospitals — all are intertwined. It’s a lesson Partners should take to heart.

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