Inundated by complaints about the open drug use and aggressive behavior in a troubled section of the South End, Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Wednesday touted his plan to build a regional drug recovery campus miles away, on a tranquil island in Boston Harbor.
After taking a 15-minute Boston Police boat ride to Long Island, he and his top administration officials walked amid the hulking brick buildings there, describing how they could be renovated into a regional treatment campus with 500 beds.
“In fairness to the people in the South End, they’ve had enough,” Walsh told a bevy of reporters who accompanied him on the tour. “They’re overburdened with programs. So when you think about the location of a program, this is the perfect location. It’s a therapeutic community, if you will, on the harbor. It allows the people who are going to be here a safe place to be.”
The tour was part of an effort by Walsh to show his administration is committed to the project and working to make it a reality, despite lawsuits and construction timelines that could delay the opening of the campus for another two or three years, at least.
“This is going to save lives,” said Walsh, who mentioned his own recovery from alcoholism. “This is going to save families. This is going to save a lot of people. And that’s why this is going to happen. And the question was asked, ‘What if we lose?’ That’s not an option.”
The island was the location of 800 beds for homeless people and recovering drug users. But the programs were abruptly shuttered in October 2014, when Walsh closed the bridge to the island because the state ruled that it was structurally unsound. A year later, the city tore down the decking on the bridge, which connected to Moon Island in Quincy.
Walsh faced criticism from some advocates who complained that his administration was slow to address the gaping hole in the city’s social safety net. Walsh says he has since replaced all of the beds on the island in mainland Boston. But because the island’s homeless shelters were shifted to the South End, already home to many drug treatment facilities, many of those who would have sought services on the island have instead flocked to that neighborhood.
That has prompted complaints from neighbors who say the area around Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue has been overrun by homeless people and drug users. Concerns about safety reached a boiling point last month when a deputy sheriff was attacked in the area. Boston police then arrested 34 people around Melnea Cass, triggering criticism from advocates who said the city was criminalizing a public health crisis.
Walsh said he envisions the island as a haven not only for drug users who have congregated in the South End, but also for those who have been unable to find treatment in surrounding communities.
He said the bridge to the island is fully designed and its estimated $92 million price tag fully funded. But construction has been blocked by the City of Quincy, which owns the land where the bridge would connect to the mainland.
Quincy officials argue the two-lane span would flood the Squantum neighborhood with traffic. They have filed a Suffolk Superior Court lawsuit challenging one of the bridge’s environmental permits and have appealed another environmental permit to state regulators. Boston has filed its own lawsuit challenging Quincy’s denial of a wetlands permit.
“Boston has never shown to the City of Quincy that a bridge is necessary to do that activity it wants to do over there,” said Chris Walker, chief of staff for Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch.
Walker argued that the island could easily be served by a ferry and said it makes no sense to undergo the long process of building a bridge, given the urgency of the opioid crisis.
“This is a crisis now,” he said. “Even if Quincy was rolling out the red carpet on the approval process, it’s not like this bridge would magically appear tomorrow and those facilities would appear tomorrow. This is major public works project that, even under the best scenario, would take years to complete.”
Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, who accompanied Walsh on the tour, rejected the idea of a ferry, saying it would be impossible for ambulances and ladder trucks to reach the island in an emergency.
“The bridge is vital,” Finn said. “We need public safety access.”
Walsh said concerns about traffic in the Squantum neighborhood are overblown. He said cars already pass through the neighborhood on their way to a police and fire training facility on Moon Island and said the added traffic from 500 beds on Long Island would not cause major tie-ups.
“I don’t begrudge anyone for saying they’re concerned about traffic,” Walsh said. “But this is not going to be the Southeast Expressway.”