During the pandemic, Rory Coffey often took his toddler son to play on the lawn just inside the Williams Street entrance to Franklin Park. “It was a quick escape right outside our front door,” Coffey, a Jamaica Plain resident, said. But he has not brought his son back to the park since Aug. 14 of last year.
That’s when his son, while playing on the lawn, ran toward three people sitting on the grass, as one injected himself with what appeared to be heroin and another teetered back and forth as if he was about to tip over. Before his son reached the group, Coffey grabbed him and dragged him home. When Coffey returned to the spot later, he found — and photographed — more than a dozen used syringes scattered in the grass. One of them was filled with blood.
Since that day, Coffey’s habits in the park have changed. Now he walks the trails and fields searching for tourniquets, syringes, or baggies of drugs. And he shudders when he sees other children playing on the Williams Street lawn.
Coffey and some of his neighbors tie the drug use, which they say has exploded recently, to the opening of two “low-threshold” homeless shelters on the campus of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, a verdant 13-acre tract next to Scarboro Pond on the western edge of the park. And they fear the drug use will increase substantially, perhaps turning Franklin Park into the next Mass. and Cass — the open-air drug market and homeless encampment around Boston Medical Center — if the state moves forward with a controversial plan to convert the Shattuck campus into a drug rehabilitation and homeless shelter facility for more than 1,000 people.
“This is not just me trying to be a NIMBY,” said Coffey, who lives less than a block from the park. “There are facts behind this. There are serious concerns.”
The fight over the planned Shattuck redevelopment, which is led by BMC with the blessing of the Healey administration, has turned into a clash of progressive values, with two diverse coalitions aligned against each other, each claiming their cause represents the higher social good.
Supporters of the project, among them housing advocates, some church leaders, and officials from the state and BMC, argue that lives hang in the balance and that any delay in building the facility will lead to more misery for some of Boston’s most vulnerable. The need for homeless shelter beds and drug addiction treatment is so great, they argue, that even a project of this scale — with more than 400 apartments for the homeless and hundreds more beds for drug addiction treatment — will only make a dent in the statewide shortfall.
But Coffey and other opponents argue the Shattuck plan will simply transfer the chaos at Mass. and Cass — which has spilled into the predominantly white and wealthy South End — to a park that is a crucial resource for predominantly Black communities in Mattapan and Dorchester. Black leaders have joined with Jamaica Plain homeowners, environmentalists, and two former governors — Michael Dukakis and William F. Weld — to argue that the project is poorly conceived and likely to sow chaos in the crown jewel of Boston’s parks and afflict the lives of those who live nearby.
Left-leaning elected officials are also divided, although a greater number have expressed concerns than voiced support. State Representative Christopher Worrell said he worried about shuffling the problems from Mass. and Cass into his district. “It is imperative that this same mistake is not made again for neighbors in Dorchester, another part of Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain,” he said in June after the proposal’s announcement.
Representative Samantha Montaño, who also represents communities abutting the park, wrote in an op-ed supporting the proposal, which, she emphasized, will be refined after further community input: “I cannot continue to look away as our communities are ravaged by substance use disorder and housing unaffordability. This opportunity is truly once in a lifetime.”
The administration of Mayor Michelle Wu inherited the project. A city spokesperson said the administration is “grateful to the Boston Medical Center and the coalition of providers who submitted the application and [that] the City looks forward to the ongoing community engagement” that will occur before the project moves forward.
The debate has been raging for years, since the administrations of former governor Charlie Baker and former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh hatched a preliminary concept for the redevelopment in 2017. But the dispute became even more bitter this summer after the state and BMC for the first time revealed some details of the plan, which showed it to be much larger in size.
Until June, when the full dimensions of the proposal were first publicly revealed, the state had said that the new campus would contain a “minimum of 75 to 100″ apartments for the homeless, as well as additional clinical services — a fraction of what BMC now says it plans to build.
Some community leaders feel bamboozled. “This was always a small-scale operation,” said Louis Elisa, a Roxbury resident and former NAACP-Boston president who was on the community planning board that worked with the state to develop the project. At the original size, he said, “People could agree to that.”
The project, as proposed, would be the biggest shelter facility of its kind in the state, even before accounting for the addiction treatment beds. Coffey and other critics contend the burden of caring for people struggling with homelessness and addiction should be spread throughout the state, rather than concentrated in Boston. Supporters counter the state must do both to meet the need: build large facilities in Boston and smaller ones wherever it can.
Mary Beckman, a senior adviser at the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, emphasized the 75-100 range for apartments had been billed as a minimum. But she acknowledged that BMC’s proposal unveiled in June was bigger than what had been contemplated originally.
“It’s a big vision,” she said. “It’s extremely ambitious.”
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For state officials working on the Shattuck project and advocates supporting it, the need for the facility is self-evident.
One need only to visit Mass. and Cass to see the consequences of the twin crises of homelessness and drug addiction. Every day, hundreds of men and women, some living in tents on the sidewalk, buy and sell drugs, shoot up in broad daylight, and, occasionally, fight.
“It is a humanitarian crisis,” said Robert Koenig, a BMC executive who is leading the Shattuck redevelopment project. He said the proposal, submitted to the state last year and provisionally approved in June, is designed “to prevent a future Mass. and Cass.”
Healey administration officials said the proposal is still subject to public comment and vetting by the state. It would take at least several years to build the facility.
The origins of the Shattuck project can be traced to the closure of the Long Island Bridge in 2014. The island had long served as a drug addiction treatment facility and homeless shelter. But after state officials determined the bridge was in such disrepair that it had to be demolished, the facility was closed and the residents were evacuated to the mainland.
Encampments soon cropped up around the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, drawn by the concentration of shelter services and health care options there, including methadone clinics. In 2016, officials from the Walsh administration asked the state to find a place to open “low-threshold” beds to relieve the burden, according to emails among state officials shared with the Globe.
Low-threshold beds are a way to quickly provide shelter to troubled people who are homeless. Unlike some other shelter programs, low-threshold facilities do not impose requirements on residents, such as demanding they seek treatment for drug addiction.
The request from the Walsh administration prompted the first round of planning for the Shattuck. By 2017, city and state officials circulated a preliminary proposal, according to the emails and a copy of the proposal that Coffey, the Jamaica Plain resident, obtained by a public records request. The government would ask private developers to knock down the aging hospital tower on the Shattuck campus, which is controlled by the state, not the City of Boston, and build “75 to 100 units” of low-threshold housing in its place.
In 2018, when the state held its first public meetings about the project, some residents felt that the key decisions had already been made. “They came with the idea already painted in their head,” Elisa said.
At one meeting, state officials handed out multicolored blocks and asked residents to arrange them on maps of the campus, according to documents from the meeting. The blocks represented the buildings that would be constructed.
“There wasn’t a discussion about, ‘How should we use this public resource?’ ” said Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, an advocacy group that wants the Shattuck campus returned to parkland. “It was, ‘This is what’s going to happen.’ ”
Fatima Ali-Salaam, chair of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, also wants the state to return the land to Boston and wants the city to restore it to wooded parkland. “The city has been trying to tackle air quality issues and heat islands for years,” she said, especially in neighborhoods such as Mattapan where asthma rates are high.
“It’s not that we think the housing isn’t needed. Of course it is,” she said. But the plan for the Shattuck campus, she contends, is a question of environmental justice.
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Last year, after a series of public meetings and consultation with a Community Advisory Board, the state released a request for proposals that was broadly similar to the plan city and state officials had drawn up in 2017.
It called for a private developer to knock down the Shattuck’s 70-year-old hospital tower and build a new campus including at least 75 to 100 units of long-term, low-threshold housing, as well as additional beds for drug addiction and psychiatric treatment.
The idea, hatched by the Baker administration, was to run a competitive bidding process and award the contract to the development team making the best offer. The state said it did not plan to pay for the construction; financing would be the winning developer’s responsibility.
But a couple of months later, in August 2022 when the bidding window closed, instead of multiple offers, there was only one: the proposal from BMC.
When the proposal was submitted, Kate Walsh was the chief executive of BMC. Now Walsh is Healey’s secretary of health and human services. Beckman, the HHS senior adviser, said that Walsh was recused from the process of provisionally approving the BMC proposal in June but that she will be involved in ongoing discussions to finalize the project’s details.
Currently the two shelters on the Shattuck campus contain 54 low-threshold, short-term beds. The BMC proposal calls for more than doubling that number and adding 405 additional units of long-term housing for people who are homeless and have mental health diagnoses, such as substance use disorder. To help fund the project, BMC asked the state to contribute $207 million, a request the Healey administration has neither agreed to nor declined.
BMC submitted its proposal in partnership with nonprofits, including Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, which would provide medical services, and the Pine Street Inn, which would manage part of the housing.
The proposal has two noteworthy features. First, BMC and its partners would offer the entire continuum of addiction treatment — from inpatient detox to outpatient methadone — in one place, as a way to reduce disruptions and setbacks. And second, in an unusual arrangement, the new facility would include housing for people who could still be using drugs on the same campus as patients trying to get sober.
That approach raises concerns for some experts.
Dr. Charles Anderson, chief executive of the Dimock Center — a community health center, homeless shelter provider, and addiction treatment facility in Roxbury — said his organization has avoided providing large-scale shelter for people currently using drugs on its campus. He fears their presence would derail the patients in Dimock’s addiction treatment programs.
“It would be a struggle in our mind and we felt we might compromise some of what we’re doing on the pure recovery side,” he said.
Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said he worries about concentrating so many people and such a wide array of services in one place, as BMC proposes to do. He pointed to Mass. and Cass as an example of what can go wrong.
“I would never stand in the way of a project like this,” he said. “But if you ask me, ‘Is that ideal?,’ I would say probably not.”
O’Connell’s reservations are especially noteworthy because his organization is one of BMC’s key partners in the proposal.
Many opponents have voiced a similar concern — that drug use, drug dealing, and related disorder will spill from the Shattuck’s grounds into the surrounding park. So far, opponents say the state and BMC have not provided a satisfactory answer to how they will prevent that scenario from playing out.
“It’s always frustrating,” said Coffey, the father who lives near the park’s Williams Street entrance. “When we bring up security [in public meetings], they talk about security on the campus when we’re worried about security beyond the campus.”
Indeed, BMC’s proposal discusses “site-wide security,” various measures to keep residents and staff members safe within the campus’s borders. But Coffey said he and other opponents worried the security presence on the Shattuck’s grounds might only push drug-related activity into the park.
Koenig, of BMC, said the proposed Shattuck facility would not lead to the kind of disorder seen at Mass. and Cass because “the mix of programs and services we are proposing is fundamentally different.”
The long-term apartments come with services, such as job training and counseling meant to help residents access health care. The addiction treatment beds would enable patients to go through an entire treatment regimen in one place, decreasing rates of relapse.
The strategy for preventing disorder, he said, is to stop it before it begins. The absence of the proposed services, not the presence of them, “leads to a downstream crisis like Mass. and Cass,” he said.
The project developers also say they will use only a portion of the Shattuck campus and open 7 acres of green space to the public.
After the project details were announced in June, some residents who live near the park aired a new round of critiques.
In a public Zoom meeting on Aug. 15, residents logged in to discuss — and mostly criticize — the project. “There’s a lot of collateral trauma placed on children and the people living in the neighborhood of Mass. and Cass,” said resident Karen Grundt. “Why do we want to see it get larger and in a different area?”
Zack DeClerck, a Jamaica Plain resident who is himself in long-term recovery from addiction, was among the minority of residents who spoke up in support.
DeClerck, who was a member of the Community Advisory Board, said the critiques of the proposal and the long process of shaping it have often felt disconnected from the overwhelming need.
As opponents try to slow the development, he said, “the effect is people die because they need to wait another five years for an apartment or recovery services they couldn’t wait for.”
Clara Perdomo, a Dominican immigrant who lives in public housing in Dorchester, passes the Shattuck almost every day on her usual walking route through Franklin Park. She supports the project, she said in Spanish. “I view it as a very good thing.”
“It pains me to see the young people in the street,” she said. “We have to help them.”
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.