As the long-discussed redevelopment of Suffolk Downs nears a key city vote next week, East Boston community groups are seeking federal help to slow it down.
Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit group, on Monday filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the Boston Planning & Development Agency has done too little to engage non-English speakers in planning and community meetings for the giant project.
The complaint — filed on behalf of the environmental group GreenRoots Inc. and tenant advocates City Life/Vida Urbana — says the BPDA has violated civil rights law in its planning for the 10.5 million-square-foot project, which next week is tentatively scheduled for a public hearing and likely BPDA board approval. Specifically, they say the agency failed to make enough project documents available in Spanish and other languages spoken by many residents of East Boston — where city figures show an estimated 46 percent of residents have limited English proficiency — and that it provided insufficient translation at public meetings.
“The BPDA was well aware that a significant percentage of East Boston residents speak primarily Spanish or Arabic,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “By failing to hire interpreters versed in the language of planning or zoning, or to translate key documents, the BPDA is effectively excluding immigrant residents of East Boston from the development process.”
Language access has been a persistent concern in the two-plus years of planning for Suffolk Downs, which would add thousands of new homes and millions of square feet of office space to one of the city’s most diverse and immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.
HYM Investment Group, the project’s developer, has held more than 300 community meetings, some in Spanish, and has produced a Spanish-language website about the project. Managing director Tom O’Brien said his firm has “gone above and beyond” in public outreach efforts and plans to create a truly diverse community at Suffolk Downs that would bring 10,000 new homes to a city that badly needs them.
“At a time when we are facing a housing crisis, it is unfortunate that anyone would want to hold up progress on this creation of much-needed housing,” he said in a statement.
A BPDA spokeswoman pointed out that it has translated several key documents into Spanish, held two Spanish-only public meetings, and has had translators at all community meetings on the project.
“The BPDA has prioritized creating a public process for the Suffolk Downs proposal that is inclusive for all,” spokeswoman Bonnie McGilpin wrote in an e-mail.
The complaint to the federal government says that translations in many places were “scattered, unprofessional, unreliable, and incomplete." Translators, it said, were often ignorant of the technical language used by planners and sometimes had insufficient equipment to effectively translate for a group of people and instead whispered translations to a small cluster of Spanish speakers. Question-and-answer sessions, the complaint said, were “regularly uninterpreted.”
“Spanish-speaking residents and their families have turned out for public meetings expecting to be able to hear the developer’s presentations, but the language access has been anemic at best," said Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana. "How are community members supposed to make their affordable-housing needs known and participate in local planning if those processes are set up to exclude them?”
It’s unclear whether the complaint, which asks HUD to order the BPDA to halt its review, will slow down approval of the Suffolk Downs project. The BPDA’s board has tentatively scheduled a hearing on Feb. 13, though it sometimes puts off such hearings to allow more time for discussion between developers and their future neighbors.
Community groups — including the two behind the language complaint — are also pushing for more affordable housing to be included in the project.
McGilpin said that BPDA staff have not made a final decision on whether Suffolk Downs will go to the board for a vote next week.
“The project is still under review,” she said.