Things seem a little muddy when it comes to real estate development projects and the roles of neighborhood civic organizations. In a recent article written by Andrew Ryan and Mark Arsenault in the Boston Globe, it was reported that some very shady business has been going down when it comes to real estate developers seeking approval from civic groups.
What exactly does that mean? Well, to put it simply, here’s what happens. The developer needs approval for his project. In order to get approval from the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), or Zoning Board Authority (ZBA) neighborhood support is needed. The developer reaches out to the neighborhood associations and civic groups. They present their project. Seems like a good project – they get approval. Maybe there’s some give and take. 25 instead of 35 units. More parking spots. Or a developer is asked to make a donation to help create a park for the neighborhood – aka mitigation – you know the neighborhood is going to be inconvenienced, so you’ll get a new park. But in some cases – unregistered “charities” have been created and the developer makes a donation directly to the neighborhood groups. Below is an agreement put into place for development at 55 West Fifth Street.
● $10,000 to the Friends of Second Street Park within sixty (60) days of building permit issuance;
● $2,500 contribution to the Cityside Neighborhood Association within sixty (60) days of building permit issuance; and
● $2,500 contribution to the Saint Vincent Lower End Neighborhood Association within sixty (60) days of building permit issuance
Gary Murad – president of the St. Vinny’s/Lower End Neighborhood Association was the person who authored the above proposal and emailed the developer. He also included, “It is not unusual for civic associations to receive donations from developers as part of community benefits, or donations by 3rd parties, which are used for member engagement, programming and communication.” He then submitted his agreement with the developer to the BRA for approval. The project was then approved by the BRA.
As for the Friends of Second Street Park – it’s city property – why does this group need 10k in its bank account? Shouldn’t the “donation” go directly to the city for the park. Same goes for these neighborhood groups. They are volunteer with little to no overhead etc. Why do they need $2500?
When the Globe interviewed Murad and asked him about this, he claimed he got the idea to solicit direct donations directly from another civic association. From the article:
The idea to solicit direct donations from developers came from another civic association, which Murad declined to identify.
“No one called me and said you can’t do that,” Murad said. “If someone [from the BRA or elsewhere] would have said, ‘Dude you can’t do that,’ I would have been like, ‘OK. I didn’t know.’ ”
Yes, that’s right, he pulled a Costanza! (Remember on Seinfeld when George got fired for sleeping with the office cleaning lady on his desk. When confronted by his boss, he said, “Was that wrong? If I had know it was wrong, I wouldn’t have done it.” )
Over the summer, a defamation lawsuit shed light on this such process with one witness stating that Brian Mahoney, one of the “leaders” of the St. Vinny’s/Lower End Neighborhood Association strong-arms for cash. “It is known in South Boston,” Lebedew said under oath, “that if you don’t pay Brian Mahoney cash in an envelope, then your job gets opposed.”
Brian Mahoney is also the editor in chief of South Boston Today – he local paper at the center of the defamation lawsuit over the summer. A suit was filed against Mahoney, John Ciccone, publisher, and managing editor Brian P. Wallace by Southie developer Gregg Donovan. Basically, Donovan accused South Boston Today of publishing falsehoods about his business and operating without permits. The allegations state that Mahoney’s articles were written to generate opposition from the community to Donovan’s project because Donovan would not pay a “tribute” to Mahoney. Honestly?
Mahoney denies these allegations and claims he’s only “collecting” the checks for the neighborhood for “specific issues.” Here’s where things get really murky. All this money he’s “collecting” for the neighborhood are in a bank accounts with charities/non-profits not registered with the state and his home address listed for the address of the organizations. Both of these organizations bank accounts have combined balances of $150,000. The two unregistered non-profits are “Friends of Evans Field” and “Veterans Express II.” You can read his testimony here!
After reading the testimony you’ll discover, Mahoney seems to have his hand out for a lot of “causes” in particular sports and veterans. But it is not clear how much either of these causes have benefited directly from these donations. Apparently, some of the money made it to these groups but shouldn’t all of the money donated go to the intended cause? A developer donating to the upkeep of Evans Field should write the check directly to South Boston Little League or the City of Boston for maintenance of the field – not an individual, a neighborhood group or an unregistered non-profit.
So there you have it. It’s amazing to me that civic associations and organizations – that are made up a small percentage of this neighborhood – are the ones negotiating deals, soliciting donations for certain neighborhood projects, and falsely representing the voice of the community when it comes to development. If the project was terrible for the neighborhood but the developer made a large donation to a “cause,” would it gain approval from the civic association? I’ll let you decide, but judging by the amount of development and lack of visible benefits the neighborhood is actually receiving, I’m guessing if you’re a developer who lines the right pocket, you’ll get approval. Granted, not all civic groups and neighborhood associations are corrupt – most of them do a great deal for our community and should be applauded. But as a community, we need to take a closer look.
I have no issue with a developer making a donation to help a neighborhood improve, i.e. local schools, new parks, infrastructure, municipal parking garages, local charities and art programs. We just need to eliminate the middle man. When it comes to our neighborhood civic groups, it’s clear we need transparency. Without it, there’s so much room for corruption.