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OPINION

A win-win city project stuck in neutral

Where’s a mayoral bully to counter South Enders’ case of the vapors?

Benjamin Franklin Institute.
Benjamin Franklin Institute.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

There’s a lot to be said for good, old-fashioned mayoral bullying sometimes — especially if it means getting good building projects off the drawing boards and into the pipeline.

Back in the day, Tom Menino would make some calls, knock some heads, and it was a beautiful thing. (Well, mostly. There is that Huntington Avenue building with the crown atop its many stories, but a lot of folks like that sort of thing.) Marty Walsh wasn’t bad at shaking loose the occasional development from the clutches of Lilliputians trying to hold it captive.

But for at least the next six months and probably into the new year, Boston remains in a kind of mayoral limbo, especially when it comes to development. That “acting” in front of Kim Janey’s title doesn’t inspire much fear — unless, of course, you’re former police commissioner Dennis White.

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So good projects are left to languish. Case in point, the proposed redevelopment of the site currently occupied by the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology at Berkeley and Tremont streets in the heart of the South End.

After more than a decade of discussion and planning, the school opted to leverage its assets — a rather valuable chunk of property and a historic building — and move to a location that would be more convenient for its largely urban student body, carry on its mission, and assure its financial future. It settled on a site in Nubian Square, where the school could truly be part of a neighborhood revitalization at a time when racial and economic justice need to be more than slogans.

So far, so good.

But the move, the construction of the state-of-the-art building aiming to accommodate 600 or more full-time students and hundreds of others in its part-time professional programs, is contingent on the sale of that Berkeley Street property.

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Their buyer/developer of choice is the well-regarded Related Beal, which nearly a year ago filed a formal letter of intent with the Boston Planning & Development Agency for a multipurpose reuse of the site. The plan includes 18 units of affordable housing, an “affordable cultural space,” “reuse” and renovation of the Franklin Union building into commercial space, and a 204-unit assisted living facility. The developer also pledged that some 25 percent of the triangular parcel would be “open and accessible to the public” via new walkways and landscaped plazas.

The project, according to its developers, would also create some 500 construction jobs, 510 permanent new jobs (just think about that senior care facility), put the parcel back on the city’s tax rolls, and contribute to Boston’s housing and jobs linkage fund.

“We believe that the redevelopment of the BFIT Campus into a vibrant mixed-use development with significant and inclusive open space while preserving key historic structures will revitalize a key block of the South End Neighborhood and also enable BFIT to move forward into its next century of technical education, building its new facility in Nubian Square and contributing to the economic empowerment of the City of Boston for the next 100 years,” the proposal notes.

What could possibly go wrong?

Judging from the public comments sent to the BPDA, it gave some South End residents a case of the vapors over the proposed height of the senior care section — 13 stories (or 145 feet), which just happens to be the same height as the Atelier Tower across the street.

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“A building of this height at this location would further destroy the character of this historic area,” wrote one resident, determined not to let facts get in the way of a good rant.

Others claim to be concerned about “preservation” and yet absent this project, the somewhat down-at-the-heels Franklin Union building would likely be demolished, some city officials fear.

Another writer actually waxed poetic about the possible loss of a vacant corner where Christmas trees are sold in the winter.

All of this would be amusing were it not for the real opposition — that of the South End Landmark District Commission, a six-member body, three of whose members are, according to its website, holdover appointments (one whose appointment expired in 2011 and two others holdovers since 2018). Several sources have confirmed that the commission has dug in its heels over the issue of height — although the panel has not officially held a hearing on the project. But then there’s the “process” as it exists on paper and then how it really works behind the scenes.

Without the commission’s approval, the project is stuck in neutral — no redevelopment project, no land sale —and with it the proceeds for the Franklin Institute — no move to a new building in Nubian Square.

Back in October 2020 then-Boston City Council president Kim Janey clearly cared enough about the Franklin Institute move to convene a two-hour-long Community Dialogue about it, the future of the school and the role it can play helping those laid off during the pandemic find the training and a “more secure path” to future employment.

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Last week, her office put out a press release to tout an agreement that creates four — count ’em, four — units of affordable housing in Roslindale. Maybe it’s time Janey thought bigger. Maybe it’s time she tried her hand at hardball — starting with that South End landmarks commission.


Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at rachelle.cohen@globe.com.