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The gentrification of The Bridge begins
A surprisingly interesting Planning Board meeting marks the beginning of the end
The dream of the Bridge Academy is still alive in the hearts of everyone involved with it, but the space around which said dreams coalesced, the old factory building at 300 Southbridge Street, is dead. Organizers have resigned themselves to find a new space for all the community groups that called the place home for the past several years. That fight is over. A company has bought the building and they have plans for development, and they’re in the process of getting a zoning change from City Hall to turn it into a mixed-use high end apartment and retail space development.
But just because the fight to save the building is over, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn from what happens next with it. In fact, we should watch the way in which the gentrification of this building moves through City Hall with keen interest. When I was made aware the new plans for the building were on the agenda for the Planning Board tonight, I tuned in expecting a little tidbit, maybe a kernel of something to start digging on, but I came away with a whole lot more. I also passed up on going to see KISS to watch this meeting which blows so please consider throwing me some dollars for this tremendous sacrifice I made for truly independent, reader-funded local journalism so I may see KISS another time, on yet another tour billed as their last.
What the developer, Boston-based Dalfior Development Inc., needs from the city is a zoning change. And what they needed from the Planning Board tonight was a recommendation in favor of said zoning change. The Bridge is in an area zoned for industrial use, which means in the broadest sense that it’s space meant for factories and it is illegal to create apartments or retail spaces there. Dalfior wants to create both apartments and retail, so they need the zoning changed. The city can change zoning if they want to through a variety of wonky legal processes. This specific wonky legal process requires the developer to go to the Planning Board, who then give a recommendation to City Council, who then vote on whether or not to do it I’m pretty sure. There may have to be some clearance from the Zoning Board of Appeals as well. But that’s all deep in the weeds. What you need to know is that the developer needs the consent of several city boards to change local bylaws so they may carry out their plans, and the Planning Board meeting tonight was the first step in getting that consent. This is, by the way, the process The Bridge organizers could have gone through if some private developer and/or City Hall had the good sense and heart to recognize that what The Bridge was trying to do would benefit the city immensely if only they had the financial backing to do it through proper channels. It’s a crying shame no one did but it’s also the way she goes bubs this is why we can’t have nice things.
Background on The Bridge: The Bridge is dead, long live The Bridge, Bodega Fest is upon us, Dispatch from the Bridge block party, The Bridge’s Last Stand, Crossing The Bridge: Community fights to turn mill building into youth center
Anyway I tuned in expecting only some small glimpse of what the developer had in store for the building—some throwaway item to tweet out or include in the bottom of a post the way I sometimes do—and more just felt it was important to stay on top of this issue and not be resigned to let it settle into the dustbin of history. What I watched was a whole lot more interesting than what I expected. I think walking you, the reader, through the meeting in more-or-less chronological order with a little director’s commentary from yours truly is the best way to explain why. So bear with me as I attempt the sisyphean task of making a Planning Board meeting recap interesting…
We’re at about hour three or four of this Planning Board meeting—The Bridge was the last item on a looong agenda—and I hear the Planning Board chairman call out the agenda item finally and I whisk myself off the bed where I’m half asleep on TikTok or whatever to my desk and I watch the camera cut to some attorney in a blue suit. I didn’t catch his name and it doesn’t matter but he goes into his spiel about Dalfior’s impressive plans for this historic and significant building as he puts it. I don’t want to bore you he says but this used to be the Sargent Card-Clothing Factory isn’t that neat? He’s all ‘good evening gentleman’ and ‘I know the hour’s getting late’ about it, a real back-slapper kinda guy as he breezes through the company’s plans without even an acknowledgement of The Bridge or what his company is taking from The Bridge and I’m thinking oh here we go this is going to be a brief and depressing bit of formality in which they neglect over seven years of community organizing. He’s saying they plan to turn the building into 21 apartments and some retail space but he can’t really get into it because they can’t really come up with a solid plan until they get the zoning change. He does say that they intend to keep Miss Worcester Diner which is cool but you can intend to do a lot of things in the early stages of planning a project. The company has “no plans to do anything with that iconic structure” he says in the way only an attorney can say something like that like hey we don’t plan on it but just a friendly reminder in the way I worded it that we can get rid of Miss Worcester if we want to and you can stop us haha. He says the company plans to do an “extensive restoration” of the building using some sort of federal tax credit program available through the Parks Service. And this is America buddy that restoration program wasn’t available to Dan Ford or anyone else at The Bridge but it is available to companies who can pay for a guy like this in a blue suit to go sit at a Planning Board meeting for four hours to talk for two minutes. This attorney completes his brief request for a zoning change without mentioning The Bridge at all and he passes it to the board’s chairman. The board’s chairman sends it to someone in the Planning Department who then goes into some wonky detail about what sort of specific zoning change they’re looking for. It’s something called “adaptive reuse” which is specifically designed for old, under-used mill and factory buildings like The Bridge—it’s a process “really intended to facilitate the redevelopment of buildings such as this into other uses” says some guy who works in the Planning Department. I don’t know his name and neither do you and it doesn’t matter same as the lawyer. Again I’m thinking at this point aw shucks, would be nice if The Bridge was given the opportunity to take advantage of this “adaptive use” policy which is exactly what they were fuckin doing and is exactly in line with the stated spirit of the ordinance. Again, way she goes.
So then the chairman opens up to comment from city departments and the Zoning Department doesn’t have anything to say and neither does the Law Department and neither does the Department of Public Works so the chairman throws it out to the public where any old person can comment so long as they provide their name and city of residence for the matter of public record. The first person to comment is Paul Giorgio, a Democratic Party fixer around these parts and a property owner and he also owns Pulse Magazine lol if you’ve ever seen one of those around at your coffee shop of choice. You know, the one with a five-to-one advertisement to journalism ratio that does that hilariously cringey local swimsuit issue sometimes. So apparently Giorgio owns a building across the street and he calls in with his full unadulterated support of the proposed project. He says over the past couple years he’s “seen this building deteriorate” and that “anyone coming in to save it should be welcomed.”
Damn. Like there wasn’t a years-long campaign to save it or anything. He doesn’t even mention that. So I want to take a minute to say fuck that guy. He owns the building next door and he also owns a magazine and he is intimately aware of city politics I mean he’s always lurking around City Hall and the Democratic Party events and ribbon cuttings my editors used to force me to go to so he 100 percent knows about The Bridge and the effort to save it. To get on mic and in the public record and say that this building, which has sat dormant for decades, has “deteriorated” in the past couple years—the exact same couple years that The Bridge organizers have been making the best of it and breathing life into it and trying to make it something special for the neighborhood—is an absolutely wretched comment. Not that I expected much different from a guy like that. But it still bears articulating. Fuck that guy. At this point I’m like ah jeez they’re just going to gloss over The Bridge and try to pretend like it’s just some empty building. Same way the attorney in the blue suit did.
But then we get a couple Bridge people on the horn and things start looking better. A woman who identifies as Amanda and I know I’ve met her I just can’t remember her last name says the building is currently “part of a community and has created a community within our community which has been lost.” She says getting rid of this space and turning it into something else would be “more detrimental toward our youth community than it would be helpful” and she’s right but we live in a world where our youth community is a secondary concern at best. And then Nelly Medina, one of the most righteous and hard-working activists in the city, follows up Amanda and she says the zoning change is only going to facilitate a gentrification that is rocking the neighborhood. There’s so much displacement she says and this is only going to add to it. She’s a mother and she wants the best for her children. Far as her children are concerned there’s no reason to build on this site when it could just continue to grow as a center for children in the community. Again, secondary concern at best. At this point I’m like hell yeah Nelly speak the truth even if it’s bound to fall on deaf ears and I’m sure it’s going to.
So then we turn it over to the three board members present for discussion and I’m expecting them to just sort of ignore the two speakers who brought up The Bridge like everyone else in City Hall has been doing for the past couple years and treat this like some routine legal matter. But they don’t! They talk about The Bridge! They talk about The Bridge sympathetically even!
The first member to speak, Conor McCormack, says “I am sympathetic toward the members of the bridge and the community that formed at that property” but says he still supports the zoning change to reuse the property because these guys bought it and it’s better to have it be redeveloped than nothing at all. I’m sitting there thinking damn I didn’t think he’d actually mention The Bridge but I’m happy he did despite his probably accurate resignation there’s nothing he can do.
Then member Ed Moynihan starts talking and he’s not talking about zoning or uses or anything wonky like that. He’s talking about community. “My heart is with The Bridge and the organic community that has grown out of this,” he says. “I think when folks talk about the community, that’s important.” This is only a recommendation to the City Council, it’s not a ruling, he says. He doesn’t know if it’ll make a difference at all in preserving that community, he says, but if it’s up to him and his own moral compass he has to vote no. And he does. He votes no. And I’m pretty floored by that to be honest it really hadn’t occurred to me that The Bridge had garnered any sort of sympathy and support within City Hall.
Then the chairman of the board, Albert LaValley, gives his two cents and he articulates his position well. He says he’s followed the story of The Bridge as it has unfolded and points out that The Bridge happened expressly because there had been a lack of investment in the building for so long and that lack of investment offered community groups without a base of capital a chance to turn the space into something good and all of that is true if you ask me but then he goes and says it’s not the Planning Board’s right or purpose to stop a sale of a building. “Private property changing hands is not something that’s in our power to stop or allow,” he says. Which is also true. The Planning Board is a regulatory board with narrow parameters of authority. We have a plan in front of us he says and we have to think about that plan, not some other plan that could have been if something had happened to allow The Bridge to continue on in that building. He’s going to vote yes on the project he says but that’s not a decision he takes lightly.
Moynihan says he understands but he just can’t vote for it. So they vote and it’s a 2-1 split decision going to City Council to recommend a zoning change to allow Dalfior’s plans to go forward and effectively remove the last shred of hope that The Bridge would ever be allowed to stay in that space.
And that’s the end of the meeting gentlemen thank you and adjourned. And that is the end of my best shot ever at making the proceedings of a Planning Board meeting interesting to read.
But now analysis time. What I think is so interesting about this meeting is the sympathy and the helplessness expressed by all three members of the Planning Board, who all said in their own way that they wish The Bridge could continue to exist. While one member voted against, saying he just morally couldn’t support it, the others voted for it saying they wish they didn’t have to but their hands were tied. Planning Board members are not powerful people, at least in a city like Worcester. It is more or less a volunteer position for people who for whatever reason want to be civically involved and care about responsible development and neighborhood issues. A guy like Paul Giorgio, the first wretched caller I referenced, has a great deal more real power in this city than anyone sitting on that board. Even in the context of a Planning Board meeting, it’s clear regular people in this city care about The Bridge and they want to see it or something like it. They followed the story of The Bridge and supported the mission. The problem is regular people, like the people on the Planning Board and the organizers of the Bridge, cannot compete with people like Giorgio, who sees all the wall art and events and activity at The Bridge as a sign of deterioration as he so crassly put it.
It’s useful to think of Giorgio and Dalfior Development Inc. and the attorney in the blue suit they hired to speak to the Planning Board and the economic development apparatus of City Hall as being on the same team. They don’t care about a community center like The Bridge and they see the land on which people build their lives and communities as a source of potential revenue more than a source of culture or community. The culture of our city and the people who live here are only a concern to them so much as it benefits their bottom line. Take a look at East Boston, as my friend and comrade Cara Berg Powers had me do tonight, where Dalfior is planning a housing development that will likely result in an apartment building being cleared out via “no fault” evictions so that the developer can charge higher rents and thus reap higher profits. The story of this East Boston apartment building and the story of The Bridge are the same story, as are the thousands of untold stories of evictions and displacements happening in the city and around the state every day. Dalfior is just one of myriad companies participating in this game and The Bridge is just one of myriad victims. It doesn’t have to be this way and there is very much a bad guy in these stories. I’d like to share a passage from an academic article a friend of the newsletter Alex Tarr sent me the other day. I was going to save this for a substantive look at the city’s census data, which I’m still working on, but it feels appropriate to include it here. The passage is from an essay titled “Strategies and Constraints of Growth Elites” by the sociologist Harvey Molotch.
“I have argued that virtually all U.S. cities are dominated by a small, parochial elite whose members have business or professional interests that are linked to local development and growth. These elites use public authority and private power as a means to stimulate economic development and thus enhance their own local business interests. They turn their cities, as active, dynamic units, into instruments for accomplishing the growth goals that will enhance their fortunes. The city becomes, for all intents and purposes, a "growth machine."' The operation of cities as growth machines has an impact on the quality and distribution of growth within and among urban areas.”
Thinking about Paul Giorgio in this passage certainly makes a bit of sense doesn’t it? And then later in the essay, keeping in mind The Bridge and everyone who worked to make it special:
Although growth may increase rents for those situated to collect them, many local citizens are left out of the growth benefits, although they do share-disproportionately in some cases-in growth costs. Tenants often end up paying more rent, not less, when their city grows. Job expansion provides the economically marginal little chance of bettering their employment opportunities, because the plums tend to go to migrants with better qualifications. Environmental degradation affects everyone, particularly the poor, who tend to live and work nearest the pollution and congestion. And as the local political system strives to provide infrastructure to meet increased demand for public services, citizens are threatened by a choice of higher taxes or lower-quality services.
There are very much good guys and bad guys in this story despite all vested interests telling you otherwise.
Within the next few weeks, this zoning change and the Planning Board’s split-vote recommendation will go to the City Council, where members have a great deal more authority and flexibility in how to use it than do Planning Board members. Their discussion of the proposed zoning change should prove even more interesting and even more illustrative of the city’s priorities. If they have the conversation at all. It’s possible they may move the zoning change along as quietly as they can. We’ll see.
The Bridge, back when there was a chance of saving it, was ground zero in the fight against rampant and unchecked gentrification in this city. Though the fight for the building is lost, it’s just one battle in a war. How the proposal to turn it into luxury apartments moves through City Hall—who helps it and who gets in the way of it—deserves our full attention, and I will surely be watching.
Though the building is lost, organizers at The Bridge are looking for a new home and they deserve your support. Consider giving them some money if you can.
Also consider subscribing to this newsletter if this story resonated with you in any way or you learned something maybe and you have a few bucks a month to throw around. I certainly spent $5 on something dumber than this newsletter and if I can convince a few more of you to throw in I’m looking at being able to afford taking on another writer. I love writing about Worcester in this way and I couldn’t do it if it weren’t for the financial support of the people who pay me directly to do it. You think the Telegram would run this stuff? Get lost.
The hour is late and I’ve been clickity clackity wailing on the keyboard since the Planning Board adjourned so if there’s any embarrassingly sloppy copy in this one that’s why. It’s not because I actually suck at writing I promise. My wonderful copy editor who I shall refer to only as Dearest Kathryn is in bed like a normal person and unavailable. Idk maybe she’s not but still I’m not texting her to read a story at 3 a.m.
The other day this old guy asked me how to get to the RMV from the bank I was at in North Worcester and I couldn’t give him a good answer because our bus system is incredibly difficult to use. So I just gave him a ride lol. Cool guy.
Worcester is in dire need of better public transit but that’s a whole other can of worms for another time. Another story for another time is my time in Tobago some years back on a mostly bullshit music research trip for school credit. But we were actually on the island not on some resort and that was cool to experience and so was getting to know some people there. The way they do public transit is if you’re one of the people that owns a car, people can flag you down for a ride and there’s a culturally accepted rate for local trips and cross-island trips. Much better public transit system than Worcester if you ask me and this was developed in a solidly third world country. Driving Wayne to the RMV got me thinking about it for the first time in a bit. I have a whole ass ~personal essay~ about that trip waiting to be written up but I’ll save that for a time I’m feeling a little more masturbatory. Some interesting stuff though especially about being dragged to some local guy’s wake for “research.”
Did you know I went to school for anthropology and not journalism? College is fake and you can do whatever you want after. Also probably just don’t go if you haven’t already. But also if you’re more than halfway in just finish it.
And with that bit of bad advice I bid you adieu~