Louis Elisa comes to Franklin Park for the fresh air and scenery.
“The golds, the reds, the purples and everything,” Elisa said, overlooking the foliage in a picnic area. “If you don't have a car, you know, the free bus along Blue Hill Avenue doesn't get you to New Hampshire, but it gets you to the Franklin Park, where you can have this pristine view of nature in its fullness, and it's gorgeous.”
But he worries that could soon change.
Reporting from the Cottages at Shattuck last month — a small transitional housing community for people with substance use issues leaving the area known as Mass. and Cass., staff said the city and state had plans to expand transitional housing on the site of the hospital. The Shattuck Hospital is set to be demolished in the next few years as the state moves its existing services to Boston Medical Center.
Not too long after that, the Bay State Banner published a story about the proposal. It explained how the state planned to partner with a nonprofit to put those units along the 13 acres of park land that Shattuck currently sits on, and how community members were growing increasingly concerned about that, including Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson.
"The very first time I heard about it was from community advocates who requested a meeting, and they told me about housing and affordable housing,” Fernandes Anderson said.
It didn't end there.
“Later on, I get a call from one of my constituents who then informed me that these were going to be treatment homes or low-threshold housing, and all 400 in the Shattuck area," Fernandes Anderson said. “So I didn't actually have a chance to speak with anyone from the state, or developers. I still welcome that opportunity.”
Fernandes Anderson said her district, and Roxbury in particular, already has a disproportionate share of treatment-oriented housing. She said adding more would overwhelm an already underserved community. And she's concerned it would be a repeat of Mass. and Cass.
“We know that treatment doesn't work when they're all compacted in one area,” she said. “So it's disenfranchising a community. It's not helping the community. Other towns, especially affluent communities, should share this responsibility.”
Fernandes Anderson said she also got calls from environmentalists who want to preserve Franklin Park's greenspace, like Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.
“This is an opportunity that the state, which took the land for the hospital use, has decided it will no longer be using that land for the hospital use,” Mauney-Brodek said. “Instead, their proposal is to lease out the land for 99 years to bring in another service provider. We look around and we see leftover hospital properties that have been sold for private development all over the city and the state. And we wonder if other decisions, other alternatives, could be found so that this could be restored to park land.”
Frederick Law Olmstead designed Franklin Park to be the centerpiece of the emerald necklace, since it is the largest park along it.
The Conservancy has been working with Northeastern University to propose alternatives to the plan so that vision can be fulfilled, something former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis has supported, even as the park has been used for other purposes.
“I was a construction worker on the Shattuck in the early 1950s, if you could believe it. Nobody really raised any questions about whether it was appropriate to take 13 acres out of precious park land and devote it to another institution, when we were presumably trying to deinstitutionalize,” Dukakis said. “But we spent a lot of time, needless to say, trying to move in another direction. And for the life of me, I don't understand what this is all about.”
And he agrees that treatment services should be spread throughout the region to make them more equitable. For community members like Fatima Ali-Salaam of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, it's about feeling left in the dark.
“We were only involved in what was considered to be the last Community Action Board discussion,” Ali-Salaam said. “When I spoke to many other neighborhood associations, in particular in Roxbury and in Grove Hall area as well as Mattapan, they thought that there would initially be 75 to 100 units, possibly. But they did not want to have that happen at all. Now, right now, a proposal is going forward that is for 400 units. But no one has seen the actual proposal.”
Like Mauney-Brodek of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Ali-Salaam said the issue is not so much about housing a high-needs population as it is about the land not going back to Franklin Park. But she said there is an extra irony for Black and brown communities like hers that were neglected when they needed treatment programs.
“In the '80s, crack drug use was widespread. Nobody came here to rescue us. Nobody,” she said. “And now that there is more known and understood about addiction, we already have places where we have transitional housing. At the same time, you know, if a family is looking for housing, they're out of luck.”
She also said there has been increased drug use in the area.
“You have open heroin shooting-up in Franklin Park. That puts people on edge,” Ali-Salaam said.
That brings increased concerns about violence, too, especially in the wake of the stabbing of 91-year-old civil rights pioneer Jean McGuire last week.
“While it's not necessarily connected, it's not necessarily unconnected,” Elisa said.
Elisa, who has known McGuire for a long time, is also a founding member of the Franklin Park Coalition, and vice president of the Garrison-Trotter Neighborhood Association. He worries about the park becoming unsafe and uncomfortable for those who use it if the proposal goes forward.
“For a long time, the hospital being enclosed was no real challenge,” Elisa said. “But you've introduced a new element and it has severely impacted quality of life in the community. We see more syringes in that area. You know, it's not what we've had in this park.”
We did not see any syringes while we were there. We did reach out to the city to see if they've received any complaints and how often it cleans up that area of the park but did not receive a response before deadline.
At this point, the state's Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance has not yet made the plans public. The Commonwealth plans to begin relocating services in 2025.