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In Allston, BRA’s e-mails paint a disparaging picture

Project manager apologizes for offending residents

By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2009

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Internal Boston Redevelopment Authority e-mails that belittle Allston residents who question a controversial housing proposal have heightened worries among some in the neighborhood that the city undervalues their opinion on development matters.

The more than 200 pages of e-mails, posted on an Allston blog, are to and from Jay Rourke, a senior BRA project manager, to colleagues, his boss Heather Campisano, the developer, and employees of Harvard University. The messages concern plans to relocate Charlesview Apartments, an affordable housing complex next to Harvard Business School, from North Harvard Street to a Harvard-owned former strip mall farther down Western Avenue.

In one missive, Rourke comments on neighbors meeting to plan a less-dense alternative to the developer’s proposal by saying, “Let them play their games.’’ In another, he says, “When referring to the ‘community,’ I’m speaking of a few individuals who are forcing their ideas and beliefs on the masses.’’ A later Rourke e-mail about neighborhood activists asks, “Why do we continue to meet with these . . . people?’’

The BRA e-mails span a period from February 2008, when plans for the project were coming to light, to August 2009, when revised plans were released. During this time, residents at community meetings contested the height, density, and several other aspects of the proposal for the new Charlesview.

The messages demonstrate “pervasive contempt of the neighborhood from a public employee,’’ said Allston activist Harry Mattison, who posted the e-mails on his Allston-Brighton Community Blog earlier this month after submitting a Freedom of Information request.

On Thursday, Rourke apologized to Allston residents who were offended by the messages. “These are internal e-mails,’’ he said. “They are my comments to staff members and should not reflect on the agency.’’

Rourke said he had lived in Allston for 27 years while growing up and is “passionate’’ about the neighborhood and the project.

“In the heat of the moment, sometimes your passions get the best of you, unfortunately,’’ he said.

Later Thursday, the BRA said Rourke had received a “verbal warning’’ over the e-mails in his personnel file.

The e-mail flap coincides with the ongoing investigation of e-mails deleted by a top aide to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, in possible violation of state law.

BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said that despite the friction over Charlesview Apartments, Rourke and other staff members had listened to community comments and as a result had pressed the developer to reduce building heights, add green space and homeownership units, and reduce the project’s density.

Responses to the revised plan commend the city and developer, but many say that it does not go far enough and that the project does not comply with either city zoning or planning documents. Further, many respondents had read the blog postings and their responses reflected disappointment with BRA staff.

“I am appalled that BRA considers us an annoyance and the lack of respect with which some neighbors have been treated in those e-mail exchanges,’’ wrote Allston resident Rita Vaidya.

Brent Whelan, an Allston resident who has been reviewing the project, said he was surprised by the tone of e-mails.

“It made us wonder what kind of hearing we’re getting downtown,’’ Whelan said. “It’s clear to me that nobody was sending a message to junior staff that the community needs to be respected.’’

Neighbors said the exchanges, some of which include notes that attached plans are “confidential,’’ and “not for public disclosure,’’ fed their suspicions that the city is withholding information, particularly the financing and maintenance plans for the project, which are still not public. They worried that the result may be another neighborhood catastrophe and point to the Filene’s Basement hole in Downtown Crossing and the unfinished Science Center.

“I’m concerned that in 40 years Charlesview residents will face the same conditions they have now,’’ said Laura Bethard, referring to the disrepair of the current complex. “I would love to be proved wrong, but until I see the numbers on paper, I can’t come to any other conclusion.’’

Elsbree said BRA staff had reviewed the project’s finances to ensure that it can be completed and that it will be more durable than the poured concrete of the old structures.

“We share the concerns of the community,’’ she said. “We also want to be sure this is not just another hole in the ground.’’

Other neighbors pointed to a July 2009 e-mail asking that the project not be mentioned in the concurrent planning process for the surrounding area. Residents say this bolsters their contention that the project does not conform to this or previous plans for North Allston.

BRA Deputy Director Mike Glavin said that in fact the revised proposal reduced the project’s density by adding acreage in response to the larger planning effort.

“We universally heard that the project now is better than what was originally proposed,’’ he said. “There is also major agreement on the plan. The question is, how much of it can be realized.’’

E-mails exacerbate distrust
The BRA e-mails center on Allston community meetings at which residents questioned details of a proposal to relocate Charlesview Apartments, an affordable housing complex, from North Harvard Street to Harvard University-owned land on Western Avenue.
From: Rourke, Jay
Sent: Fri., Feb. 15, 2008; 12:49 p.m.
To: Autler, Gerald
Subject: RE: Charlesview IAG
[Impact Advisory Group]
I know. This thing is going to be a pain in the . . .
From: Rourke, Jay
Sent: Wed., July 16, 2008; 3:02 p.m.
To: Glavin, Michael
Subject: RE: Allston neighbors
Forum proposal for Brighton Mills & Charlesview relocation site
This has [expletive] written all over it!
From: Rourke, Jay
Sent: Fri., Aug. 7, 2009; 9:12 p.m.
To: Glavin, Michael
Subject: RE: checking in
Why do we continue to meet with these . . . people