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This Valentine’s Day, can neighbors end their fight over affordable housing in Dorchester?

Last month, the Epiphany School and some neighbors filed lawsuits in an attempt to derail a project that would bring a 72-unit apartment building to the neighborhood. Now, the school has had a change of heart.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

After the lawsuits, here comes an olive branch. The question is: Can this relationship be repaired?

It is fitting on Valentine’s Day that I’m hoping a love-thy-neighbor ethos can prevail in the contentious fight over an affordable housing proposal in Dorchester.

Last month the Epiphany School and some neighbors filed lawsuits against developer Trinity Financial and the Boston Planning & Development Agency in an attempt to derail a project that would bring a 72-unit apartment building to the neighborhood.

Lawyering up has become a common playbook, one that ultimately slows development and drives up costs. Now the Epiphany School, a tuition-free school that serves disadvantaged children, has had a change of heart.

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“I did not go into my work to get into fights with people,” said the Rev. John Finley, the head of the Epiphany School, which sits next to the proposed affordable housing development off the Red Line’s Shawmut Station.

So why did the school sue in the first place? That hardly seems like a way to win anyone over. Finley explained the school and neighbors had to sue to preserve their right to appeal the BDPA’s approval of the project in November.

Seeking a resolution, John Kennedy, who works in real estate and chairs the Epiphany board’s building and grounds committee, sent a letter Feb. 1 to Jim Keefe of Trinity Financial to propose a land swap to end the lawsuits. Keefe, who is a longtime Dorchester resident, is principal and cofounder of Trinity.

At issue is the sale of the Fitzpatrick Brothers Auto Body shop and what happens to the parking lot the school shares with the shop. Epiphany and some neighbors are upset about the size of Trinity’s proposal and its encroachment on their properties.

Epiphany, in particular, is worried about the safety of students during construction and afterward when tenants use their parking lot. So the school is proposing to buy the Fitzpatrick lot for $3 million, combine it with the school’s parking lot, and reconfigure the property into two new lots. The school would sell the lot along Centre Street to Trinity for $1 and keep the back lot for the school, which preserves its option for future expansion.

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“This investment by the school and this plan can begin a serious conversation about how to develop transit-oriented affordable housing here,” wrote Kennedy.

The proposal is similar to one Epiphany pushed a year ago, except this time the school does not want to develop the Fitzpatrick lot itself. It will leave development to Trinity but asks the developer to consider family-size units, pathways to homeownership, and a design that fits with the character of the neighborhood.

The Fitzpatrick Brothers Auto Body shop in Dorchester. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Crucially, one request is missing from the letter: downsizing the development. In this years-long fight, that represents an olive branch.

But so far it’s radio silence from Keefe and Trinity. I reached out to a Trinity spokesperson who declined comment citing the pending litigation.

Epiphany’s offer — while well-intentioned — probably comes across as opening a can of worms, the biggest of all being: Would a land swap trigger another review process?

You can see why Trinity might not want to go there. The BPDA has already given the affordable housing developer the green light to build a project that drew support from other Dorchester residents and elected officials such as then-city Councilor Frank Baker and state Representative Russell Holmes.

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What’s more, during a two-year review process, Trinity has responded to neighborhood concerns, increasing the number of two- and three-bedroom units, decreasing the overall number of units, and changing the building from mixed income to 100 percent affordable housing.

So what happens now and why should anyone outside of Dorchester care?

Well, because this tiny fight is a window into why it’s so hard to build housing in Massachusetts. Neighbors can be fiercely protective of their community, and developers can only make so many accommodations.

The Epiphany’s latest idea is one I wish Trinity had explored earlier, but tensions have been so high it was hard for any true meeting of the minds.

It happens too often. Just last week a group of Charlestown residents sued Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the BPDA to block a 100-unit affordable housing development at the Navy Yard that would also include supportive housing for formerly homeless women and veterans.

Then it almost always gets ugly. I know firsthand living in Milton where a referendum is pitting neighbors against neighbor over whether to comply with a new state law requiring towns with MBTA service to create more multifamily housing. Some residents don’t like the new zoning plan, so we’re going to the polls on Wednesday to decide what to do.

As I wrote last time, Epiphany and Trinity need to learn to live with each other. If all goes according to the BPDA’s plan, they are going to be next-door neighbors. They may never send each other Valentines, but one thing is for sure: Lawsuits aren’t the way to open hearts and minds.

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Shirley Leung is a Business columnist and host of the Globe Opinion podcast “Say More with Shirley Leung.” Find the podcast on Apple, Spotify, and globe.com/saymore. Follow her on Threads @shirley02186


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.