Residents Oppose 24-Story High Rise on the Edge of Chinatown

At a June open meeting in Hei La Moon restaurant, Boston Chinatown and Leather District residents opposed the 24-story office building development. A period for public comment has been open since June and closed July 30. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Yeh)

At a June open meeting in Hei La Moon restaurant, Boston Chinatown and Leather District residents opposed the 24-story office building development. A period for public comment has been open since June and closed July 30. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Yeh)

On a Thursday night in the basement of St. James Church on Harrison Avenue, Boston Chinatown, a man stood from his folding chair, holding a microphone. He did not need it.

“Okay, so this is our entrance, and this is right across Chinatown’s park, and you’re building right across from the park,” the Chinatown resident said through an interpreter. “So therefore, the wind will be flat back into the entire Chinatown community, making the trash blow into our community. So essentially you’re making this a dumping ground for your building.” Residents applauded from their seats.

“As a Chinatown resident, what we need is health,” the man continued, “and we need a quality of life.”

This was the second open meeting for public comment held by Oxford Properties—the Toronto-based real estate investment arm of a Canadian pension fund—and the City of Boston on a proposed 24-story, 340-foot office tower at 125 Lincoln Street, the current site of Hei La Moon restaurant and banquet hall and C-Mart Supermarket. At both meetings, Boston Chinatown and Leather District residents and community stakeholders strongly opposed the proposed high rise, citing the development’s height, its effect on traffic, wind, and the economic and social consequences for residents, among many concerns.

At the meeting, Oxford Properties’ Vice President Mark McGowan, architect Doug Gensler, and consultant Tim Love gave a technical overview of the project’s dimensions and design features. They cited market demand for office space in Boston and the site’s proximity to South Station and several bus stops that commute to Greater Boston’s suburbs as reasons for development.

In response to community concerns about affordable housing at previous meetings, McGowan and Love’s Thursday presentation introduced a new slide on “Potential community benefits,” which included $4.6 million in affordable housing linkage payments and 40 to 50 affordable housing units. According to McGowan, 79 Essex Street, a currently empty building owned by Oxford Properties, could be the site of affordable housing. In 2016, its previous owners, New York-based Westbrook Partners, proposed to build a 17-story hotel at the same site—a proposal that did not pass.

Attendees at Thursday’s meeting continued to voice concerns about affordable housing in both Chinatown and the Leather District. One Chinatown Residents Association member reminded Oxford Properties vice president Mark McGowan that many residents of both districts have annual household incomes that do not exceed $30,000.

“So would you give priority to those residents to be able to [...] move into your affordable units?” the Chinatown resident said through an interpreter. “If you are able to resolve this really imminent issue for Chinatown, you are more than welcome to be here. But if not, I can guarantee you that both the Leather District and Chinatown will not welcome you.”

“We’re still in the early stages of exploring what level of affordability, and how that operates, but we would collaborate with a nonprofit partner on that,” McGowan responded.

One long-time Chinatown resident asked McGowan to further explain Oxford Properties’ plans to support Hei La Moon restaurant and C-Mart Supermarket during and after the high rise’s construction. Although Oxford Properties announced its intentions to either rent out its proposed floor-level retail space to Hei La Moon and C-Mart Supermarket, or help them relocate off-site, McGowan could not offer concrete plans.

“We’re going to work with the businesses on that; we don’t have a plan,” the Oxford VP said.

View of the 24-story office high rise from Essex St. looking southeast. “The building is envisioned to be not a glass box,” architect Doug Gensler said. “Not to feel like a large corporate tower, but to have the texture and richness of what we see in the neighborhood and buildings in this area.” Rendering by Gensler.

View of the 24-story office high rise from Essex St. looking southeast. “The building is envisioned to be not a glass box,” architect Doug Gensler said. “Not to feel like a large corporate tower, but to have the texture and richness of what we see in the neighborhood and buildings in this area.” Rendering by Gensler.

One resident of Downtown Boston’s Mason Place subsidized elderly housing worried about the impact of high rises for Chinatown’s elderly. The man noted that his children no longer visit him, because they are afraid of $85 parking tickets; elder care workers that frequent his building—and the elderly throughout Chinatown—now limit the length of their visits to a few minutes because they are afraid of $200 parking tickets, for which their companies won’t reimburse them.

“Imagine our quality of life,” the Mason Place resident said.

Attendees at Thursday’s open meeting—the second meeting for public comment—voiced opposition to the development. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Yeh)

Attendees at Thursday’s open meeting—the second meeting for public comment—voiced opposition to the development. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Yeh)

He criticized the development for putting an undue burden on Chinatown. He noted that, among other injustices, the eventual eviction of C-Mart Supermarket would hurt the elderly in and around Chinatown, many of whom subsist on a fixed annual income below $20,000 and depend on Chinatown’s few remaining ethnic supermarkets for groceries.

“The cost of this elegant, beautiful building would be the ultimate death of Chinatown,” he said through an interpreter. 

Another Chinatown resident supported the man’s charges:

“The elderly gentleman who just spoke in Mandarin—that is his testimony, his personal testimony,” the woman said through an interpreter. “That’s why I’m begging you, I’m pleading with you to save our lives. Save the lives of the Chinese elderly. It’s in your hands.”

Real estate developers conduct open meetings for public comment to address the health, safety and livelihoods of residents and community stakeholders—or to at least show that they listened to what people had to say. But has Oxford Properties listened? Beyond these bare minimum standards, Oxford Properties, should use these meetings and other avenues of community engagement to proactively serve residents and businesses in areas  that have continued to be racially and economically excluded from important civic areas of life for more than a century. 

Leather District residents opposed the 24-story office building development at the first June meeting. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Yeh)

Leather District residents opposed the 24-story office building development at the first June meeting. (Photo courtesy of Wayne Yeh)

In the midst of an “affordable housing crisis” that has gripped major cities across the country, it is unacceptable to propose large scale development without a robust plan for how it will serve those who will see it in their own neighborhood. It is blatantly evasive, untransparent, and insulting to community members—who attend open meetings, bring valuable community expertise, and ask important questions—for Oxford Properties not to have properly explored opportunities for affordable housing, and be so inadequately prepared to address anxieties about the eventual evictions of Hei La Moon and C-Mart. Put simply: one should show up to a meeting having done one’s homework.

Oxford Properties has not shown in the least that they have done their homework: their 787-page project notification form devotes one sentence to housing on page 24. A 24-story They have not considered the people most directly affected by their investment schemes. The Mason Place resident said it succinctly: imagine the community’s quality of life.

Imagine the community’s quality of life, because Chinatown’s problem, above all, isn’t a housing crisis—it’s a tenant’s rights crisis. As tenant organizer Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal writes, “When we call this crisis a housing crisis, it benefits the people who design housing, who build housing, who profit from housing, not the people who live in it.”

Recommended reading:

This article details the cruel tactics used by a developer at 103 Hudson, to evict Pei Ying Yu, who has since retired as an elder care worker, and spends her time organizing.

This piece by former resident Cynthia Yee details the life of Boston Chinatown at her home Hudson Street, before Yee and her family were displaced by Central Artery Construction in the late 1950s.