For decades, the austere hospital has stood as a monument to poor urban planning, critics say, a brick-covered eyesore looming over the city’s largest park and an enduring affront to Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace.
Yet the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital and surrounding buildings on a 13-acre campus carved out of a tree-shaded meadow in Franklin Park in the 1950s have long provided essential medical care and social services for the homeless and substance dependent that would be difficult to place elsewhere.
Now, with the aging hospital slated to close in three years and city officials considering sweeping changes to the park, tensions are mounting over the fate of the state-owned property. It’s an emotional dispute that underscores Franklin Park’s importance to the city and an abiding hope that its original promise can be realized in full.
Designed by Olmsted in the 1890s, Franklin Park is effectively the end point of his Emerald Necklace of green spaces that were to ring the city. The vast refuge connects five city neighborhoods and brings together people of all backgrounds, with road races, concerts, and annual celebrations such as Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.
“The park is a critical organ in the lifeblood of our neighborhood,” said Louis Elisa, president of the Garrison-Trotter Neighborhood Association in Roxbury, who helped found the Franklin Park Coalition in 1978.
Elisa and others want to reclaim the Shattuck campus as parkland and correct what they view as a historically bad decision to sever public access to a large portion of the park when the state built the hospital there 70 years ago. They have suggested moving Shattuck’s range of social services to a new facility that could be located at the MBTA’s Arborway Bus Yard, a sprawling lot about a half-mile away in Jamaica Plain, with easy transit access.
“The community deserves better,” said Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime, win-win opportunity to relocate these important health services to where they can do the most good, while returning parkland to the community.”
But social service providers and affordable housing advocates say it’s vital to maintain as many housing, psychiatric, and recovery programs at Shattuck as possible, given the hospital’s proximity to many patients in need and a dearth of other suitable locations.
Kathy Brown, coordinator of the Boston Tenant Coalition, said new services planned for the property are long overdue and called the efforts by open space advocates “outrageous.”
“We cannot wait,” she said. “We need to move forward to address these critical needs.”
State officials presented their proposal for the property at a heated virtual hearing last month, outlining plans that mainly sided with the hopes of social service providers.
While the Shattuck’s medical services will be transferred to a refurbished Newton Pavilion at Boston Medical Center, the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services has proposed leasing the land where the Shattuck sits for 99 years to a developer or nonprofit organization that would provide a range of services, including addiction recovery treatment and as many as 100 units of “supportive” housing for the homeless. It would be left to the developer to decide whether to refurbish or replace the existing buildings.
In a presentation at the hearing, Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services, said there was an “urgent need” for more services and new housing.
“The pandemic has only exacerbated these needs,” she said.
The plan to redevelop the property, the result of more than a year of public meetings and conversations with a community advisory board, has received preliminary approval from the state’s Asset Management Board, which reviews all long-term leases by government agencies. The board is expected to make a final decision in the coming weeks.
The plan has stirred significant opposition, including from former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld. Dukakis, who helped build the Shattuck while working a summer construction job in 1952, said the taking of land from Franklin Park “never made any sense to me then, and it doesn’t make any sense to me now.”
“This is precious parkland, and the T site is obviously the place for these services,” he said at the hearing.
Dukakis, a longtime board member of the Emerald Conservancy, and others noted that the bus yard is just a block from the MBTA’s Forest Hills Station, which they said would make it an ideal location for social services.
Weld described the future of the park as “an issue of equal protection and racial justice” and called the state’s proposal “nothing short of an insult to the surrounding communities.”
Unlike other beloved public spaces, the park’s original 527 acres have been whittled away over the years, losing 112 acres to a golf course and 72 acres to the zoo. The loss of the Heathfield meadow to the hospital was perhaps the deepest wound, he said, describing it as “among the most beautiful acres in the entire park.”
Franklin Park “has been under assault almost from the beginning,” Weld said. “The park offers respite, refuge from the bustle of the city, and a quality-of-life asset of incalculable value to the residents of the neighborhoods that surround it, which are predominantly Black and brown communities.”
But state officials and supporters of their proposal say moving the services to the Arborway would take too long and would be subject to another arduous planning process.
Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the MBTA, said the yard remains vital to maintaining and housing 118 city buses and is the agency’s only facility for buses powered by compressed natural gas.
“The MBTA has no immediate plans to abandon the Arborway facility, which is critical to the delivery of bus service,” he said.
Others who have long advocated for the preservation of Franklin Park, where the city soon plans to spend $28 million on a range of improvements, including new bike paths and hiking trails, said they hope state officials would honor the wishes of neighbors.
“I understand we need these services, but a public park is not the place for this,” Elisa said. “Putting housing and more services there conflicts with our need for more park space.”
The debate over the property has become an issue in the city’s mayoral campaign. Acting Mayor Kim Janey described Franklin Park as “a restorative home in the heart of our city, both through beautiful open space and through the services at the Shattuck.”
“We look forward to working with the community to find the right balance of open space, supportive housing, and recovery services,” she said in a statement.
But City Councilor Michelle Wu said the state’s plan reflected “our myopic approach to planning.”
She urged state officials to work more closely with the city and the MBTA to come up with a plan for both sites.
“Now is a moment when we should be pushing for all options to be put on the table,” she said. “It should be one conversation, where we’re not pitting communities against each other.”
Proponents of the state’s plan said they would support turning the bus yard into a center for low-income housing and other services, but only in addition to those planned for Franklin Park.
Lyndia Downie, president of the Pine Street Inn, which provides emergency shelter and other services to more than 200 people a day at the Shattuck property, noted that the law that transferred the Shattuck site to the state requires it be used for public health purposes.
“We have a desperate need in Boston for housing for people at the lowest income level, and this site has the benefit of already serving low-income people, and it is close to both the bus and T at Forest Hills,” she said. “We need every site we can find.”
Others said the new services and housing would be vital to relieving pressure on other city neighborhoods, especially the South End, which has become a center for social services to serve the many homeless and victims of addiction displaced after a host of shelters and programs on Long Island in Boston Harbor were closed abruptly in 2014.
“Every day I see the misery of people who live on the streets,” said Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, whose members abut the South End. “We desperately need the transitional housing and other services that the state’s vision for the Shattuck campus affords. We don’t need it in two years or five years; we need it now.’'