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Boston’s storied history of NIMBY-ism

No. No. No.

It’s an all-too familiar refrain. And now it’s the dissonant tune coming from foes of Boston’s bid for the Olympics. Opposition has surged, like a rising tide of negativity. As soon as it was announced that Boston had been chosen to represent the United States in the global sweepstakes for the Summer Games, residents groused about Olympic-sized congestion, worried about soaring costs to taxpayers, lamented the throngs in their neighborhoods.

It did not seem to matter that the Games wouldn’t start until 2024.

Reflex reaction is classic Boston, a city quick to grumble. In the past five decades, a bid for a billion-dollar world expo never got traction. A Patriots stadium in South Boston was flatly rejected. A planned Whole Foods in an aging Latin food store in Jamaica Plain drew calls for a boycott.


Since revolutionaries forced the British out of this city, Bostonians have reflexively fought outside forces telling them what to do. And they point to the consequences when there is no fight: Witness, they say, the bulldozers that wiped out the entire West End.

Some call it local pride.

Others call it intense NIMBY-ism.

Nothing’s off the list of complaints.

“No” to a medical marijuana dispensary in the South End.

“No” to disabled ramps that might disturb the historic character of Beacon Hill.

“No” to opening a treatment clinic for addicts in Roxbury or a new shelter in the South End.

Towering apartment buildings? Dog hotels near homes? Hotels for humans? Nope, nope, and nope.

It doesn’t have to be this way, said Brian Golden, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the man in charge of the city’s planning agency, which absorbs the brunt of community ire.

Golden and former mayor Raymond L. Flynn said there is an effective way to stop the not-in-my-back-yard phenomenon, or at least curb it: Let people know what’s coming next. Residents want to feel they are part of the process, part of the early thinking of anything being planned here.


“We are in many ways still a very parochial city,’’ Golden said. “But parochialism has its upside and its downside. There is something nice about our parochialism. It gives us our sense of neighborhood identity and character. We want to protect and preserve those things which make us unique.”

The downside, he said: It can get in the way of progress.

Flynn dismissed the “not in my back yard” label, noting the Hub threw its arms wide open when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip paid a bicentennial visit to Boston in 1976, and when Pope John Paul II arrived in 1979, and when newly released South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela stopped by in 1990 .

The Democratic National Convention in 2004 also registered just a blip on the complaint radar.

“Boston has been welcoming and embracing of these great events,’’ Flynn said. “We did it. And the people welcomed them.”

Still, others say this city of champions is becoming a hub of complainers.

“Have you ever been to a BRA meeting?’’ quipped one politico. “It’s, ‘No. Not now. Not ever.’ ”

Environmentalist George Bachrach, a fierce backer of the doomed Cape Wind project, said NIMBY-ism often reflects a combination of legitimate concerns about a community being altered and unreasonable fears from people averse to any changes.


A closer look at our history shows that NIMBY-ism can, indeed, elevate the conversation, by highlighting overlooked concerns and moving the city to right past wrongs.

But the record also shows that public discontent can sometimes thwart the most carefully laid plans.

Late 1980s: Pru shall overcome

At first, residents were not keen on a $375 million expansion proposed for the aging Prudential Center. Flynn’s administration decided to hold 100 community meetings to give residents their say. In 1989, opposition began to recede, albeit slowly. A citizens committee reviewing the plans sent a letter to Flynn, saying the ambitious project “requires substantially more work” — but stopped short of outright opposition. The committee called the plan, which included 1.8 million square feet of new development, “weak and lacking the special character . . . Boston deserves.” Members complained that too much of the new space would be for offices rather than for people, and that the expansion would significantly increase traffic on residential streets. In the end, all was well. “They pushed for a better plan,’’ Flynn said. “I was at the very first meeting. There were 200 to 300 people opposed to the expansion of the building. By the 100th meeting, the community overwhelmingly accepted the expansion.”

Lesson learned: Listen, and ye shall win.

1996: Snake eyes for Trump

Long before casinos were legal in Massachusetts, Donald Trump had his eye on Long Island, where he envisioned a casino, marina, and residential development. His representatives were about to propose the idea to local business and government leaders. But as word spread, Thomas M. Menino, the mayor then, declared he was not ready to give serious thought to any “pie-in-the-sky ideas.” Turns out Quincy’s former mayor, James A. Sheets, was not keen on the idea, either. “That’s not acceptable to me and it’s too disruptive to the people who live in Squantum.” In 2007, a month after former governor Deval Patrick proposed legalizing casinos, Trump’s resort development arm began scouring locations suitable for a Massachusetts gambling emporium. Neither effort gained traction.


Lesson learned: Don’t bet on besting determined politicos.

1990s: Patriots stadium blowout

Bill Brett/Globe staff

A Patriots Stadium in South Boston? That’s what Patriots owner Robert Kraft wanted, but that dream never got realized. Kraft was looking to move his team to a megaplex that included a convention center and a 69,000-seat stadium on the waterfront. Opposition mounted, including from a group called “Stick to Your Guns Southie.” Politicians also rose up in protest, in a showdown characterized in a Globe article as “classic Boston political theater: Old-school politicians — unpolished and relentless — seeing themselves as protectors of working-class families against the forces of big business embodied by a brash ‘out-of-towner’ trying to invade their neighborhood.” The Legislature eventually quashed Kraft’s plan.

Lesson learned: Follow Southie rules, or else.

1999-2000s: Fenway, stay put!

David L Ryan / Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In making the case for a new Red Sox ballpark, the team’s former chief executive, John Harrington, declared: “It would be easier to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa” than to renovate it. Saying Fenway Park was past its prime, team owners initially eyed a location in South Boston next to Kraft’s proposed stadium, but Menino steered the team back to Fenway. Team owners planned a modernized replica of Fenway next to the existing structure. But residents blocked the move. Some residents said a bigger park would overwhelm their neighborhood. Fervent fans and preservationists urged renovation over demolition. Team leaders rebuffed that suggestion, saying their architects and engineers had thoroughly studied rehabbing, but thought it not physically or economically possible. “It just doesn’t make any sense,’’ Harrington said. Eventually, the team relented, and fans are treated to a much-upgraded Fenway Park.


Lesson learned: Don’t mess with tradition in Boston.

2009: Protest over dog hotel

Fenway Bark was billed as a premier dog hotel, with fancy boarding services, including acupuncture, and weekend day care for the discriminating pet. But Southie residents would have none of it. They didn’t like the location on East First Street and said the kennel would create noise, animal odor, and more traffic. And they were angry they were not informed earlier about the plan. “We keep getting dumped on,’’ one resident said at a 2010 community meeting. The South Shore couple planning the doggie hotel stood stunned, looking as if they were put in front of a verbal firing squad. The owners eventually triumphed — but moved their business down the road to West First Street, at the old industrial edge of South Boston, a neighborhood rapidly gentrifying. Rates for the luxury box for your pooch? Roughly $103 a night.

Lesson learned: The neighbors can be rough.

2009-15: Garden Garage curbed

It had been a neighborhood eyesore, an unsightly structure tarnishing the West End skyline. Yet plans for razing the old Garden Garage met with community backlash. Chicago developer Equity Residential pitched a plan in 2009 to tear it down and replace it with two towers on Lomasney Way, in the shadow of TD Garden. Neighbors said the project was too big, too dense, and it failed to get off the ground. The developer later returned with a new plan. This time, there would be single 46-story tower. It would be taller and bigger, but confined. “Whether you call that NIMBY-ism or not — that’s in the eye of the beholder. But there are a lot of people that will tell you it’s too tall, too dense, and they don’t want it in their backyard,’’ Golden, the Boston Redevelopment Authority director, said. The authority, citing feedback from residents and elected officials, has decided to taker a closer look before bringing the matter before its board. “We’d like to see something better for the neighborhood and for the city writ large than that garage,’’ Golden said. “But we’d like to see more harmony in the neighborhood about an acceptable alternative to the garage.’’

Lesson learned: Ugly is undeniable, beauty is subjective.

2010s: Whole Foods shocker

Hi Lo Foods closed its doors in 2011. Wendy Maeda/Globe staff

When Whole Foods Market, seeking an urban adventure, decided to move into a closed Latino grocery store in Jamaica Plain, the upscale grocer had no idea the reception it would receive. The move was hailed by some as a sentinel of neighborhood transformation. But a vocal group of opponents said the grocer would hasten gentrification, drive up rents, and force out low-income residents and small retailers. They launched a petition, urged a boycott, and demanded Whole Foods sign a community benefits agreement that included money for affordable housing and youth programs. “Don’t buy your Thanksgiving meal ingredients at Whole Foods year!’’ declared the protesters’ Facebook page. Whole Foods finally opened in the fall of 2011. And on any weekday, the aisles are full.

Lesson learned: Protest till you drop, then shop.

2011: Walmart checks out

When Walmart began expanding its reach into urban America, it looked to Boston. The nation’s largest retailer sharply increased donations to local nonprofits amid a campaign to improve its image and build local support. And then it started looking for sites. But by then, word got to City Hall that the retailer wanted to open some smaller stores in the city. Menino, joined by some residents, wanted none of it, saying Walmart had no place in Boston. In Roxbury, opponents crowded a community meeting at the Dudley branch library, railing against what they said was Walmart’s history of discriminatory practices, crushing impact on small retailers, and low wages. Walmart decided Boston was not worth the hassle and moved on.

Lesson learned: You’re not in Arkansas anymore.

2012: Chick-fil-A fried

Mike Stewart/Associated Press/Associated Press

Walmart wasn’t the only business Menino sought to block. He also took on Chick-fil-A, whose owner, Dan Cathy, opposes gay marriage. Cathy had stoked national outrage when he was quoted as saying, “We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.” Menino’s response: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston.” He wrote a letter to Cathy blasting him for his gay marriage position. Menino later acknowledged that other than using his bully pulpit, he could not block the fried chicken chain from setting up shop in the Hub. But Chick-fil-A got the message and skipped Boston.

Lesson learned: Fast food and a slow burn cause indigestion.

2014-15: Getting the treatment

When the bridge to Long Island was shuttered, casting adrift the homeless and substance abusers who received treatment on the island, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration sought out new drug treatment sites in Roxbury and Mattapan. Weeks of tense community meetings and protests ensued. Residents complained they were concerned about safety, and some were upset because of the lack of community input. Roxbury residents had their backs up, tired of a disproportionate number of such facilities in their neighborhood. “People want to treat Roxbury as an alternative to their own NIMBY-ism,’’ said one resident. South End residents also opposed a city plan to build a new homeless shelter in their neighborhood. In the end, city officials announced the opening of two treatment facilities — in Mattapan. A new shelter is being built in the Newmarket area.

Lesson learned: Enough already!

2015: Cape Wind sinks

A $2.5 billion wind turbine farm in Nantucket Sound was hailed by environmentalists as a glorious plan. With 130 wind turbines, it would have been the first offshore wind facility in the United States. But some residents did not want that distinction. “Everybody wants wind power. The folks in the Berkshires want it on Cape Cod. The folks on Cape Cod want it on the Berkshires,’’ said Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “Everybody wants it. They just want it some place else.’’ Opponents said the wind farm would sully their ocean view and pristine skyline. Financed by wealthy property owners and a business mogul, they launched a 12-year battle. The project was entangled in costly legal fights, challenges over permits, and — ultimately — politics. Then, Cape Wind missed a crucial deadline to secure financing and begin construction. And two power companies that agreed to purchase energy from the Nantucket Sound wind farm backed out. Ultimately, the project failed for many reasons, including the economy.

Lesson learned: Hot air can take the wind out of big projects.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.