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East Boston residents enthusiastic, wary about Menino's waterfront proposals

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  January 2, 2012 01:25 AM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Just across the harbor from the revitalized Charlestown Navy Yard, much of the East Boston waterfront remains derelict, strewn with trash and dominated by rotting piers.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s recent proposals for revitalizing East Boston’s waterfront drew a largely enthusiastic response from residents, though some remain wary of commercial development or question the proposal’s timing.

“People in the neighborhood are suspicious,” said Neenah Estrella-Luna, a seven-year resident who said some believe the proposal was timed to reduce neighborhood resistance to Menino’s concurrent push to bring a casino to Suffolk Downs.

In Menino’s annual speech before the Boston Chamber of Commerce last month, he outlined a plan to improve water transit to the neighborhood by building a new marine terminal near Maverick Square and said he had asked the Boston Redevelopment Authority to pursue the creation of an East Boston Waterfront Development District that would allow the city to invest in infrastructure improvements.

Menino’s goal is to help drive development of several projects that were proposed for the neighborhood and approved by the BRA but never built due to a lack of financing or other roadblocks. “Economic uncertainly has stalled progress here. But I believe focus, collective action, and investment by the city can jump-start it,” Menino said, according to a transcript of his speech distributed to the media.

In the days since the announcement, elected officials, neighborhood activists, and other residents have spoken out in support of the plan, saying they’ve long awaited investment in the East Boston waterfront — with its panoramic view of the downtown skyline — and that they believe if anyone can spur real growth here, it’s the city’s powerful, longest-serving mayor.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Diane Modica, a lifelong resident, city councilor from 1994 – 1998, and vice president of the East Boston Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously people in East Boston have been waiting years to see the development of the waterfront, and there’s been a lot of stops and starts over the last several years that have been very discouraging.”

Mimi Goss, a communications consultant who moved to a home near Piers Park in 2000 after living for years in Newton, said easier transportation would encourage people to explore the community she fell in love with.

“If there were ferries coming here and they were inexpensive and people would come from downtown Boston to East Boston, I think they would discover it,” Goss said. “It’s diverse, there's lots of energy here, there are a lot of artists, there are lots of entrepreneurs doing amazing, innovative things, and there are restaurants with people from all over the world.”

Others echoed those sentiments, sometimes with the comment that it’s high time East Boston got a break after decades of watching other neighborhoods and other sections of the city’s waterfront redeveloped. City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina has lived in East Boston all his life and was Mayor Raymond Flynn’s liaison to the neighborhood prior to being elected in 2006 to represent it. He believes it’s finally East Boston’s turn.

“I represent East Boston, Charlestown, the North End, and I look at those two neighborhoods and I love how their waterfronts look, and I look at the East Boston waterfront, and I get disgusted and frustrated because nothing’s been happening all these years,” said LaMattina, 52. “And I see what’s going on in South Boston, and like, why not us?”

LaMattina pledged to do everything he can to move the process forward. Several community members said they believed Menino could deliver on his offer and cited his ability to bring people to the table and get things done.

Clark Moulaison, 52, is executive director of East Boston Main Streets and lived in the neighborhood for 37 years. “I think if anybody can, he has obviously the wherewithal, aside from the bully pulpit,” Moulaison said. “He’s the kind of mayor, if he really means what he says, that he will do it, he can actually get these various developers together along with Massport and individual property owners to move forward on it.”

There was little apparent concern that development could lead to low-income residents being priced out of the neighborhood. Several said they believed in Menino’s commitment to affordable housing.

“I don’t think we’re going to be like South Boston, which I think has sort of gone up in a flame of gentrification,” said Philip Giffee, 64, executive director of the East Boston-based non-profit community development corporation Neighborhood of Affordable Housing and an East Boston resident in the 1980s and 1990s. “You’re already seeing some price increases in the Jeffries Point section [of East Boston] … but they’re not extreme.”

But Giffee did express concern that an influx of new residents could mean less of a voice for the neighborhood’s existing low-income and immigrant populations that would make it harder to build affordable housing in a newly upscale area. “They feel they’ve made their investment, they’re the last one in, close the door.”

Some worry, too, that Menino proposed waterfront improvements to help persuade or distract the vocal group of residents who oppose bringing a resort casino to Suffolk Downs, a proposal Menino supports. Estrella-Luna said to protect the neighborhood’s interests it would be necessary to separate waterfront development from a casino plan and deal with each separately.

But others in the neighborhood see a casino as potentially beneficial, if planned through a community process with proper mitigation, or are simply resigned to the idea that if Suffolk Downs is able to secure a license from the state, no amount of community opposition will stop it. They tended to agree that the path toward redevelopment had to include careful planning through a public process where residents could make their voices heard.

“Execution is key,” said Melissa Tyler, a 12-year resident of the neighborhood who serves on the East Boston Project Advisory Committee. She and other residents believe the biggest barrier to development in the neighborhood has been its reputation as an unattractive, low-income area or simple ignorance of the neighborhood as anything other than the location of Logan International Airport.

“We’re kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, they’re over by Logan,’ or ‘East Boston, that’s the airport,’” said Tyler. “We’re not identified really as something special yet.”

She and her neighbors hope waterfront redevelopment will change all that.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow East Boston on Twitter: @EastBostonNews.

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