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City, state scrutinizing Chinatown organization

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  May 18, 2012 03:48 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

The C-Mart supermarket sits on property designated for affordable housing nearly three decades ago.

City and state officials have joined Chinatown leaders who are closely watching a neighborhood organization, but all parties are declining to say what action they may take.

The office of Attorney General Martha Coakley has sent a letter to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England — under scrutiny by Chinatown community leaders in recent months due to a controversial lease arrangement — but the contents of that letter have not been made public.

The attorney general’s office acknowledged that the letter existed but declined a reporter’s public records request, writing that the items requested “are investigative materials necessarily compiled out of the public’s view, the disclosure of which would compromise effective law enforcement.”

A spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino confirmed that the mayor’s office had called the attorney general’s office seeking action but would not provide details.

Dot Joyce, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Menino was “always very concerned about housing in Chinatown,” where 40 people were evacuated from an apartment building deemed unsafe by the city just three months ago.

Recent neighborhood scrutiny of the benevolent association stems from a vote its board made on March 28 to sign a new lease with the C-Mart supermarket chain on a property at 50 Herald St. that the association long ago promised to use for affordable housing. The board voted 27 to 17 for the new lease, despite vigorous opposition from some members.

Tufts University and the New England Medical Center conveyed the Herald Street property to the association as part of a 1983 deal. The association signed on behalf of the Chinatown community, saying residents would not oppose institutional expansion in the neighborhood in exchange for a site to develop affordable housing, a $100,000 scholarship fund, and $100,000 for job training.

But the association never used the site for housing; instead, it has been rented out as a supermarket space for 19 years. The new lease would extend that use for another decade, with two five-year renewal options.

Additionally, rent from the lease has been diverted into the association’s general fund, in violation of the 1983 agreement. The diversion of funds earlier attracted the attention of the attorney general’s office, which in 2006 sent a letter demanding that the association “at a minimum, immediately restore funds to the … account and stop any further improper use of the funds.”

Leaders of the association’s board defended the lease in late March, saying it would enable them to plan for development of housing at a later date and to begin to repay the housing fund.

Rick Wong, president of the benevolent association, did not respond to multiple phone calls and e-mail requests for comment on the attorney general’s letter.

In an e-mail, Simon Chan, English Secretary for the association, wrote, “I do believe that things should move to a happy ending and a workable solution with the [attorney general’s] office in due course.”

Beverly Wing is among those in the local Chinese-American community waiting to see what action the benevolent association will ultimately take. Nearly 30 years ago, Wing was director of an English program for immigrants administered through the association, and she worked with the subcommittee overseeing the scholarship fund created through the agreement with Tufts and the medical center.

Wing said she understood that there was a “capacity issue” in the mid-1980s and the association wasn’t prepared to take on such a project, but she doesn’t understand why it never partnered with a developer. She pointed to the Chinese Golden Age Center’s recent partnership with Rogerson Communities that enabled it to expand the Hong Lok House on Essex Street as an example.

“There are all kinds of models out there that they could have explored,” she said.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

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