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This fight near Shawmut Station doesn’t bode well for easing Boston’s housing shortage

A standoff over a plan to build apartments in Dorchester is a textbook example of how the city’s high land and construction costs can push housing developers to overreach and residents to dig in too hard.

Abutter Andrew Saxe and Vicma Desir, a member of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council, oppose plans for an apartment project on the site of the Fitzpatrick Brothers auto body shop in Dorchester.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The collision repair business has been a neighborhood fixture since 1894, when brothers Thomas and Martin Fitzpatrick started working on horse-drawn carriages and wagons on a plot of land tucked between Fields Corner and Codman Square in Dorchester.

But after four generations at the same location, across the street from a railroad stop that later became the Red Line’s Shawmut Station, the family was ready for a change. It signed a purchase and sale agreement in 2016 with a Boston developer eager to build apartments adjacent to the MBTA.

It’s not hard to guess what happened next.

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The developer, Trinity Financial Inc., began talking with abutters about its vision for the site of the Fitzpatrick Brothers auto body shop: nearly 100 rental units in a building that would rise perhaps two stories taller than everything around it.

Abutters were aghast at the scale of the project being pitched for their compact community known for its Victorian homes and workhorse triple-deckers. Many neighbors soon lined up behind the opponents.

The standoff is dragging into a seventh year at a time when Boston is desperate for housing.

It’s a textbook example of how the city’s high land and construction costs can push housing developers to overreach with aggressive plans for a site, then ask the city for a variance from zoning regulations. Residents dig in hard. Neither side never really knows how much leeway the city might permit.

These battles play out across the city and the suburbs every week. Unless the dynamic changes — and there are incentives for compromise earlier in the development process — regular folk will be regularly priced out of the housing market.

A key issue with the Fitzpatrick property: Does high-density housing that works well at many transit-oriented sites make sense for Shawmut Station — the rare T stop that’s not on a busy thoroughfare?

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Trinity has scaled back its plan at least twice in response to neighborhood pushback and is now proposing 74 rental units. Abutters have said a cap of 27 units would be more than appropriate since the four-parcel site is zoned for two units each, or eight overall.

The fight started in December 2016, when Trinity principal James Keefe made an early presentation to the Melville Park Neighborhood Association. Trinity was no stranger to many at the meeting: Its high-profile Carruth building, 116 units of housing and retail, was built one stop down the Red Line at Ashmont Station.

Abutters and other neighbors are opposing plans for a big apartment project on the site of Fitzpatrick Brothers Auto Body in Dorchester.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Keefe, a longtime Dorchester resident who cofounded Trinity in 1987 with his partner Patrick Lee, told attendees his firm planned a five-story building with 96 units. That wasn’t quite as big as the Carruth, and there would be no retail. But the setting was different, too: Carruth sat on Dorchester Avenue, a busy commercial artery.

(Disclosure: For 22 years, until June 2020, my wife and I owned a home located a short walk from the Fitzpatrick shop. I was never active in any of the three neighborhood associations that have opposed Trinity’s efforts.)

Objections to Trinity’s original plan focused mostly on density, limited new parking, and the impact on traffic, according to interviews with abutters and other residents.

They also said a five-floor apartment block would not fit with the city’s Neighborhood Design Overlay for the area, one of 19 in Dorchester intended “to protect the historic character, existing scale, and quality of the pedestrian environment” of the designated districts, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

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“There was no effort done in terms of the scale or architectural style to make any sort of concession to the neighborhood overlay district,” said Andrew Saxe, whose 1895 Victorian home sits across a narrow street from the Fitzpatrick site. “The people here don’t feel like they’re protected,” he said, when a developer can come in with a plan that far exceeds zoning limits.

In an interview, Keefe said that after 35 years in the development business, the early blowback didn’t surprise him.

“With a few exceptions, we are typically met with initial skepticism and resistance,” he said. “There were nearly 60 meetings large and small during the approval process for the Carruth, but most neighbors, once they understood what it was, ultimately supported it.”

Nevertheless, Trinity backed off, and another developer, Travis Lee of TLee Development, signed a purchase agreement for the Fitzpatrick site in 2017. Lee’s discussions with residents were more give-and-take, with the Dorchester developer explaining that he could build anywhere between 35 to 50 units.

“He was very sensitive and listened to what people had to say,” said Doug Shaheen, who lives near Shawmut Station and is a vice president of the St. Mark’s Area Civic Association.

Even so, Lee told residents in early 2018 that he couldn’t move forward because it wouldn’t be financially feasible to meet their density limits, given the Fitzpatricks’ $3 million sale price. Neale Fitzpatrick, who runs the auto body shop, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

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And that’s where things stood until late in 2021, when Keefe, with a new deal for the property in hand, sat down with abutters and the Melville Park and St. Mark’s associations. Trinity now envisioned a four-story building with about 80 units. The concession wasn’t enough to change many minds.

“We want housing that looks like what we have: smaller, more home-like,” said Vicma Desir, who lives up the street from the site and is a board member of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council.

Then early this year a new player emerged: Epiphany School, an independent, tuition-free middle school for disadvantaged students that built its campus beside Shawmut Station about 20 years ago.

An early-education classroom of the Epiphany School in Dorchester on Nov. 19, 2019. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

John Finley IV, head of school, told the Dorchester Reporter in February that Epiphany was interested in purchasing the Fitzpatrick site. The school already owned the parking lot abutting the shop.

By summer, Finley said he had a donor who would provide $3 million to buy the land. If successful, Epiphany would do more fund-raising and work with partners to expand the campus and build affordable housing.

“We’d love to do housing in a way where we don’t have to make a profit,” Finley said in an interview.

Abutters were thrilled, but there was a problem: Trinity had no intention of walking away. It had already filed its formal letter of intent with the city in June, which Finley was unaware of.

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The letter of intent calls for 74 units — mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments and nine studios — and 39 off-street parking spaces. It would set aside 45 apartments at rates affordable for low- and middle-income tenants.

Keefe questions the criticism that he’s insensitive to residents’ concerns, noting that the project has gotten smaller over time. Moreover, he said Trinity’s plan would increase use of Shawmut Station, would not have a significant impact on traffic, and would make the area around the station safer because more people would be living close by.

“All I can say is give us a chance, work with us, and let’s see where the process takes us,” he said.

But the process began years ago with each side holding unrealistic expectations about how much housing would be appropriate for the Fitzpatrick site. They remain far apart.

Both sides will now face off in the city’s formal review, which could take a year or more to complete.

They might regret not finding common ground sooner.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Trinity was founded.


Larry Edelman can be reached at larry.edelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd.