Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Six for City Council in Allston-Brighton

When the six candidates running for City Council in Allston-Brighton’s District 9 gathered for their first pre-election forum, there wasn’t even a hint about naming a bridge or a library for their future predecessor, Jerry McDermott. After serving less than three terms, McDermott is on the way out at age 39. Not only is he forgoing a run for re-election, but he’s moving out of Boston, most likely before the end of his term. Though McDermott inspired only one negative comment during the forum, his exit looms over the new campaign trail like an evacuation sign—saying more about trouble in the city than where to find a safe haven.

The forum was held at the Oak Square YMCA, and it can be said the surrounding neighborhood is less of a haven than before. Just a few blocks from the border of Newton, Oak Square is about as far as the candidates can get from expanding colleges without leaving the district. But the neighborhood is one of two in District 9 where a Catholic school has recently closed. In Oak Square, community activists are raising money to convert the former Our Lady of the Presentation School into a community center. That would be one more reason for families with children to stay, but McDermott has already mentioned the closing as one reason for moving out.

“People are leaving the city. Property values are going up. Water rates are going up. Homeowner’s insurance is getting more expensive,” said candidate Gregory Glennon. An assistant district attorney in Suffolk County, Glennon narrowly missed getting elected state representative from Allston-Brighton in 2005. His example of flight from the neighborhood was a family whose child was assigned to a public school in East Boston.

“I hear over and over again that people are leaving because of the schools,” said Tim Schofield. An attorney with an office in Brighton, Schofield also ran for representative in 2005.

The youngest candidate, 26 year-old James Jenner, said Allston-Brighton was becoming another Amherst, Massachusetts—a college town with very few families.

To varying degrees, census figures analyzed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority show this is happening in several neighborhoods, including South Boston, the South End, Jamaica Plain, the Fenway, and even West Roxbury. According to the same figures, the number of family households in Allston-Brighton declined from 1990 to 2000 by 6.5%. The BRA also reports that, over the same period, the number of housing units in Allston-Brighton has grown, but so has the percentage that is absentee-owned.

And, while some residents in a park near the YMCA were letting their dogs frolic off-leash, the candidates inside were putting even more blame for the flight of families on expanding colleges, with their rippling of disruptive students into the off-campus housing market. One of the candidates talking about the students was Alessandro “Alex” Selvig, a Lake Street resident who wants to keep Boston College from building a baseball stadium on conservation land acquired recently from the Archdiocese of Boston.

“This is the biggest issue facing in Allston-Brighton: the party houses, the kids. They’re driving us crazy,” he said.

To crack down on party houses, Selvig and candidate Mark Ciommo favored increasing the staff in the city’s Inspectional Services Dept. Schofield wants to add any unpaid fines for code violations to property tax bills. “We can increase enforcement,” he said, “but if we don’t increase the pain, it’s not going to do much good.”

There was also a question about a proposal to give tenants in large buildings the right to negotiate collectively over their rent. The candidates who took the question, Ciommo and Selvig, were both opposed. “It only scares investors away,” said Ciommo, adding, “We need more development of affordable units, not less.”

Taking even more heat than landlords were colleges and universities.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there,” said Glennon. “There’s this sense the institutions will do whatever they want to do.”

Glennon said he would oppose new housing for undergraduates on the land in Brighton that Boston College recently acquired from the Archdiocese of Boston. Jenner called for more give-backs to the community, including revenue based on the income generated by expansion. He’s also opposed to Harvard’s attempts to relocate residents of Charlesview Apartments complex near Western Avenue and North Harvard Street.

The executive director of the Veronica Smith Senior Center, Ciommo called for Harvard University to allow new businesses on property where it has no short-term plan for development. Schofield said long-range plans for university expansion should also include open space set aside for the community.

Another candidate, the executive director of the Brighton Main Streets program, Rosie Hanlon, has been a member of the advisory task force on expansion by Boston College.
“I worked to get the students back on campus where they belong,” she said.

But Selvig said there should have been more notification of task force meetings among the college’s neighbors.

“The process has to be changed,” he said. “We have to know what’s going on right across the street from us.”

Selvig sat through the forum with a pair of blue-and-white boxing gloves. He said they was supposed to show that he would fight for the district, but he also boasted a diplomat’s skills in negotiating and an entrepreneur’s skills in making a deal.

A mother of five, Hanlon described herself as having “a very maternal, pit-bullish approach to getting things done.” She also took credit for getting the local New Balance Factory Store to donate sneakers to a walking club. “I have the experience,” she said. “I have the commitment. I get results.”

Glennon spoke about delivering constituent services while he was working as an aide to former Allston-Brighton State Representative Brian Golden. Glennon also said he would “absolutely oppose” Mayor Menino’s attempt to raise city revenue by increasing the meals tax.

A fourth-generation member of his family in Allston-Brighton, Ciommo spoke of his work in social services and being active in the community on parks, public safety, and as a parent representative at the Gardner Elementary School.

On his law firm website, Schofield cites experience in litigating “complex business and partnership disputes,” along with cases over zoning and land use. A US Army veteran and former congressional aide, he said he’d be “an effective advocate” who would know when it’s time to bang fists and when to negotiate.

Jenner has lived all his life a few blocks from Oak Square, on Kenrick Street. His most recent jobs were driving for UPS and making deliveries for Papa Gino’s. He said he’ll devote 20% of his salary as a City Councilor to a fund for the community, and he described himself as “somebody who is not prone to the old way of politics—money politics.”