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Mayor, governor question feasibility of Widett Circle plan pitched as fix for Mass. and Cass

Buildings housing former wholesale food markets occupy the bulk of Widett Circle just off the Expressway and the MBTA rail yards.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A plan put forth by South End businesses and residents to relocate the homeless encampment in the area known as Mass. and Cass and build a recovery campus at nearby Widett Circle appears all but dead after city and state officials cast further doubt about the long-shot proposal on Monday.

“It’s not something that, for me, seems feasible within the city’s purview,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said during her monthly appearance on WBUR’s “Radio Boston.”

“It’s not land that we have control over; we don’t have funding allocated,” Wu added. She also said the plan was “not formed with significant public health expertise guiding it.” She commended neighborhood leaders for proposing solutions, though, and said she was open to “any private opportunities that might emerge” to connect people to recovery services.

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Governor Maura Healey’s office said the administration and the MBTA have met with members of the South End groups that proposed the plan, which has raised safety concerns among officials.

“We appreciate their commitment to helping individuals suffering from substance use disorder access safe housing and treatment and recovery services — and we want to be strong partners in that work,” the governor’s spokesperson said in an e-mail. “However, we have concerns about the safety of the Widett Circle location and the risk it could pose, as this site is surrounded by heavy rail and construction activity and will soon be reconstructed as a rail yard.”

The pushback from Wu and Healey throws cold water on the plan proposed by companies in the Newmarket Business Improvement District and neighborhood group The South End Forum, though members of both groups held onto hope Monday.

Wu has identified the troubled area surrounding the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard as a top priority — and major challenge — since she took office nearly two years ago.

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But the Widett Circle plan would be expensive: Proponents estimated it would cost at least $10 million to build the campus and $3 million annually to maintain it.

The Widett Circle property also is not the city’s but is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which plans to use it as a trainyard for its commuter rail service. And Wu late last month proposed her own new plan for the Mass. and Cass area — one that would create a new safe sleeping place for up to 30 people while also empowering police to clear tents and street shelters — a pivot she said was necessary as it reached a “new level of public safety alarm.”

Steve Fox of the South End Forum and Sue Sullivan of the Newmarket district said they have met with MBTA officials to discuss the Widett Circle plan, including General Manager Phillip Eng and Thomas Glynn, chairman of the MBTA board of directors. Fox said the talks are ongoing with another meeting set for “the very near future.”

“A dialogue has been opened between us and the MBTA in terms of looking at the feasibility and we have not received anything yet that has told us that this as a plan is off the table,” Fox said in a phone interview Monday.

“They haven’t said no, and they haven’t said yes,” Sullivan said. “What they’ve said is they’d like to be part of the solution.”

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Fox said they have also met with senior staff in Wu’s administration but not with the mayor herself. He called her remarks on WBUR “disappointing.”

“This is a reaction based on what she’s heard from others,” he said. “It would have been really helpful if we had an opportunity to personally brief the mayor and answer her questions directly.”

Sullivan and Fox both pushed back on Wu’s assessment that the plan lacked input from public health experts. Fox said their proposal is supported by “almost a decade of research.”

“The Widett Circle plan is the product of over nine, close to 10 years of discussions among multidisciplinary professionals, neighborhood people, physicians, addiction experts, public health experts,” he said. “The [South End Forum’s] Working Group on Addiction Recovery and Homelessness, from which this plan was derived, has been around and discussing these matters for 10 years.”

State Representative John Moran, whose district includes both Mass. and Cass and Widett Circle, has supported the project and believes it is still possible.

“I really would like to have the state, the city, private groups, neighborhood groups all working together and having conversations rather than just dismissing ideas,” he said. “I don’t see people at the same table.”

Moran said the safety concerns that Healey’s office raised are legitimate.

“That’s something real that we can respond to because it’s specific,” he said.

The South End groups’ plan, which emerged in August, calls on the city to open a multimillion-dollar, multi-stage recovery campus in Widett Circle, featuring roughly 200 temporary cabins, with five zones designated to house people at different phases of the recovery process. The first would be for people still using drugs, and the second zone for detox, with the others devoted to people in deeper stages of recovery.

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The campus is just the latest in a long succession of proposals for Widett Circle, an area that’s been targeted as an Olympic stadium, a soccer stadium, and dense residential development. It stands just a half-mile from Mass. and Cass, but Widett Circle is effectively secluded from the rest of the city, separated from the surrounding neighborhoods by a trainyard, elevated highway, and other heavy infrastructure.

This is also the latest in a succession of proposals for the area known as Mass. and Cass, where the region’s homelessness, mental health, and substance use crises collide. It has been a persistent challenge for Boston mayors.

Since taking office in 2021, Wu has championed a public health-first approach, working to house the people living at Mass. and Cass and connect them to addiction services. But in the wake of a spate of violence over the summer, she said the city needed “a different approach.” The city was working to respond to crime, and forced outreach organizations to pull their teams off the street in fear for their safety.

In late August, Wu announced a new plan to reduce violence in the area, including a new ordinance that would make it easier to clear homeless encampments. People’s tents would be removed from the streets or sidewalk only after they had been offered shelter, transportation to shelter, and the opportunity to store their belongings, the mayor said at the time. That ordinance still requires approval from the Boston City Council.

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Wu also announced plans to open a new shelter that could accommodate up to 30 people, a step that drew immediate opposition from some in the neighborhood.

According to city figures, between 100 and 150 people gathered in the Mass. and Cass area each morning for most of the summer, with bigger crowds — sometimes topping 250 people — congregating later in the day. Since the end of August, that early morning headcount seems to have declined, for an average of 96 people during the week of Sept. 17.

Sullivan said the Widett Circle plan’s intent is to create a temporary long-term recovery center to fill the need for these services until the old recovery campus on Long Island can reopen. In August, Wu said the city had received a key permit to rebuild the Long Island bridge and she hopes to have services up and running on the island in four years.

“We need to stop the open-air drug market and the encampments and we need to get people into recovery,” Sullivan said. “We can’t wait [four] years for that to happen.”

Sean Cotter and Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her @emmaplatoff. Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com.