The metamorphosis of Dorchester’s South Bay shopping center, with its new movie theater and high-end apartments, is poised to enter another stage with the addition of a wine emporium boasting tasting rooms and racks of fine Bordeaux.
But a roiling debate over the proposal to put a Total Wine & More at South Bay is emerging as a Rorschach test for this complex corner of the city where Dorchester, Roxbury, and South Boston meet.
To some, it reflects the transformation of the three-decade-old shopping center into a mixed-use entertainment district, catering to the increasingly affluent tastes of the neighborhoods around it. To others, the megastore could wipe out smaller packies that have long served this part of the city.
Complicating matters further is the fact that South Bay sits just down the street from the epicenter of Boston’s spiraling opioid epidemic around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, with shoplifting and other crime surging as the intertwined crises of homelessness and addiction spill down Mass. Ave.
Total Wine says its presence will fill a vacant storefront and “stabilize” a troubled area — where other retailers such as Target have ramped up security in recent months. But its critics argue the megastore will pose a threat to both their businesses and public health.
“You see addicted people everywhere,” said Ann Langone, a longtime resident of nearby Mayhew Street who says she only visits South Bay early in the day now, for safety reasons. “Why the hell would anyone in their right mind put a giant Kmart of a liquor store there?”
The manager of another liquor store, a bit north of South Bay on Mass. Ave., described the situation these days as “risky business.” Ed Garrity said his store, Liquor Land, has started closing at 10 p.m. on weekends due to its proximity to Mass. and Cass, and has stopped selling nips, single cans of beer, and bottles with high alcohol content. He routinely picks up needles in the parking lot and the park behind the building, and said people steal from the store on a weekly basis.
“I can’t even quantify the theft,” Garrity said. If a huge store like Total Wine were to come in, he added, “I don’t know how they’re going to police it.”
Garrity and other area business operators have formed the Save Boston Small Business Coalition to block Total Wine from opening. In an open letter posted this week on the website Caught in Southie, the group argued that the 20,000-square-foot store was within a 1-mile radius of 15 local businesses that sell beer, wine, and spirits, thus putting their ability to do business in jeopardy.
It’s a common concern voiced by package stores against big chains, and against Total Wine in particular as the company has tried to expand in Massachusetts and push back longstanding laws that limit sales and protect existing stores. The company is known for deeply discounting liquor prices to undercut its competitors.
But this time, the letter also layered in concerns about Mass. and Cass.
“While there are many discussions taking place about how to help people in crisis in this part of the city,” the letter said, “what we can agree on is that that neighborhood would not benefit from locating a giant alcohol superstore nearby.”
Total Wine, in turn, has launched its own petition stressing the ways the company’s arrival in South Bay could ease the troubles at Mass. and Cass.
It sees Dorchester as a “dynamic area that has already seen new investment and development,” a company spokeswoman said, and is working with the Boston Police Department to design a safety plan, which includes 34 security cameras inside the store, strict inventory protocols, and extensive training for staff to deal with shoplifters, intoxicated customers, and minors. The store, which if approved would open in about six months, also won’t sell nips, quarter pints, or 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. And — at the Police Department’s request — bathrooms will be located in the rear of the store, far from the front door, to discourage any illicit use. Over 400 people have signed on in support after Total Wine promoted the petition on the Facebook pages of its stores elsewhere in Massachusetts.
“The addition of a highly-reputable retailer bringing its well-lit, closely monitored, award-winning store,” Total Wine wrote in its petition, “will only serve to help stabilize a troubled and ignored public safety crisis nearby.”
The debate over the store is now piggybacking on the larger debate over what to do about Mass. and Cass, which has emerged as a major issue in next month’s mayoral election.
Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George — who herself lives on Mayhew Street just a few blocks from South Bay — said she has not taken an official position on the store, but said she finds it difficult to “understand and appreciate how [Total Wine] doesn’t have a negative impact on other locally owned establishments.”
Her rival, Michelle Wu, has been fielding concerns, too, said spokeswoman Sarah Anders. “Councilor Wu and her office have heard about this issue directly from community members and will be watching the situation closely.”
Frank Baker, who represents the area on the City Council, said he’s also getting calls. He’s not yet sure where he’ll land when the proposal goes before the Licensing Board on Nov. 3. He can see it both ways. The situation at South Bay is “really bad,” he said, but he’s not clear that Total Wine will make it worse.
“I’m of the belief that the more business you have the better everybody does,” he said. “Not everyone is going to go into Total Wine, and a lot of the people in the room yelling about it will be the ones that say ‘I love this place.’”
The controversy arrives as South Bay itself is in flux.
In the years before COVID-19 hit, its owner, Washington, D.C.-based retail developer Edens, embarked on a massive expansion aimed at shifting the suburban-style big-box shopping center to more of a modern lifestyle complex, adding a movie theater, walkable blocks of stores, and a 475-unit apartment building. Total Wine could be another step in that direction, even as some worry its proximity to Mass. and Cass could drag down the entire plaza.
That debate played out at a meeting Tuesday night of the McCormack Civic Association, where residents of this patch of North Dorchester were set to vote on whether to support the proposal.
Gathered in the basement of St. Teresa of Calcutta Church, some association members said they were frustrated that Edens had agreed to open a big-box wine store. Millie Rooney, a longtime board member, said Edens’s original agreement with neighbors stated that it would not open a liquor store on site.
“How is Total Wine going to benefit the neighborhood, especially with Mass. and Cass [nearby]?” she asked. “I don’t know if you’ve been down to South Bay. It’s a nightmare.”
Also in the room Tuesday night, wearing a suit and tie, was Ed Cooper, Total Wine’s vice president of public affairs. He had flown in from Washington for the meeting. If Edens had ever promised not to put a liquor store in South Bay, Cooper said, Total Wine had “no knowledge of” it.
Neither did Keith Hague, Edens’s vice president for construction and development. In an e-mail to the Globe Thursday, Hague said the company “is not aware of any agreement made with the community related to a liquor store at South Bay” and that the zoning documents, including the binding cooperation agreements that address community concerns, do not reference a liquor store.
“We continue to work through the outreach process with civic and business associations as we strive to address any concerns during the approval process,” Hague wrote.
Still, Edens has work to do. In that church basement on Tuesday the vote was split, 10-10, which means the civic association will submit a letter of opposition. Leaders of several other nearby neighborhood groups also have voiced concerns, but have not yet voted.
Still, Cooper took the results in stride, saying they showed demand in the neighborhood for the store he wants to put there.
“What I take from this evening is that perhaps the leadership may not support it,” he said, but the membership was evenly split. He said Total Wine works closely with community organizations in every location it enters. “Particularly here in the city of Boston, it’s extremely important.”