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Despite neighborhood concerns, plan to convert hotel to homeless housing in Dorchester heads for BPDA vote

Pine Street Inn and a partner would turn the Comfort Inn on Morrissey Blvd. into 99 units of permanent supportive housing for people emerging from homelessness

BOSTON, MA - 7/28/2016 The Comfort Inn on Morrissey Blvd in Dorchester. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo) SECTION: BUSINESS TOPIC 28comfortDavid L Ryan/Globe Staff/file

A controversial plan to transform a Comfort Inn in Dorchester into housing for formerly homeless people could get a key vote of support from the city on Thursday.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency board is set to vote on a plan by Pine Street Inn and nonprofit developer The Community Builders to convert the Morrissey Boulevard motel into 99 units of “permanent supportive housing” — studio apartments with 24-hour wraparound services on site for people emerging from homelessness — the latest in a string of hotel-to-housing conversions in and around Boston.

The proposal has been scaled down in recent weeks after a chorus of local opposition emerged, including neighborhood groups that protested at the project site and several city councilors and state representatives who sent a letter to the BPDA decrying the plan. In response to those concerns, the developers have said they will give preference for the units to residents over age 62.

“We’re in a position of trying to walk that delicate line of making housing that’s available to the people who need it, and also work with the neighborhood to build something that works,” said Barbara Trevisan, vice president of marketing and communications at Pine Street. “This project makes a lot of sense for us, and it’s the kind of housing that Boston needs more of, and we want it to make sense for the neighborhood too.”

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Neighborhood opponents have a list of concerns that run the gamut, chief among them the project’s scale.

The Comfort Inn, which sits on a concrete island between the six-lane Morrissey Boulevard and Red Line tracks, and is still open, is a fine site for supportive housing, said John Lyons, president of the Port Norfolk Civic Association, one of the groups that has led the opposition. But almost 100 units is far too many, he said, and a recipe for increasing drug use and crime in the area.

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Some worry that stretch of Dorchester will become a smaller version of Mass. and Cass, the intersection in the South End that has become the epicenter of the region’s drug crisis and the city’s largest homeless encampment.

“I don’t think its fair to put one of the last family-oriented neighborhoods in the city in the position of hosting an experiment with housing for the homeless,” said Lyons. “There’s a lot that could go wrong.”

A rendering of the permanent supportive housing project at 900 Morrissey Blvd.The Community Builders

Trevisan said that fears around drug use and crime related to projects like the Comfort Inn proposal are frequently overblown — Pine Street operates similar “permanent supportive housing” facilities in neighborhoods across the city — and that potential tenants are subject to extensive background checks before their application is approved.

The Morrisey Boulevard project would be the latest in a recent push that began during the pandemic to turn vacant hotels into permanent supportive housing. Hotels, homelessness service providers say, are ideal for that kind of project because converting hotel rooms into studio apartments is relatively simple, and far more cost-effective than ground-up development. Pine Street already has a portfolio of 850 supportive units.

The city has been broadly supportive of those efforts, and backed a similar Pine Street project in Jamaica Plain that is now under construction after lengthy lawsuits from a neighboring property owner. The BPDA board will hold a public hearing before its vote on Thursday night, though projects that make it to the board’s agenda are almost always approved.

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”There is a clear need for more safe and stable supportive housing for residents across Boston’s neighborhoods,” a spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu said in a statement. “This project has gone through multiple stages of community engagement and the City looks forward to the BPDA Board’s review.”

A similar project in Charlestown remains stalled by neighborhood opposition.

Residents there have fiercely resisted a plan from St. Francis House and the Planning Office of Urban Affairs to turn the Constitution Inn into a 120-unit housing project with several types of subsidy, and the developers have already cut down the number of units for people coming out of homelessness from 96 to 64.

That project has yet to be filed with the BPDA.

Trevisan said there are some cases where the projects are truly not a good fit for the neighborhood, but that they’d generally have fewer opponents if people viewed the would-be tenants with more compassion.

“We have to remember that we’re talking about people here,” said Trevisan. “A project like this can totally change someone’s life. Sometimes, all they need to start rebuilding is a place where they feel stable and secure.”


Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker.