The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The deal behind Parcel 18

January 27, 2021

The legal question dates back to 1986, when Boston created the Parcel to Parcel Linkage Program. Real estate development was booming in wealthy downtown neighborhoods, but few were looking to invest in Roxbury, a lower-income, historically Black neighborhood that faced redlining and disinvestment. The city decided to try a new policy: parcels of land downtown would be linked to parcels of land in Roxbury. If a developer wanted to build downtown, they had to buy both plots of land and commit to also building in Roxbury — in this case, Parcel 18. Investors would also be required to partner with a group of local Black, Latino and Asian investors — CPA — to encourage racial equity. 

Race was a central, explicit part of the project. There were political motivations for this. Boston’s Black community felt neglected by the city. The Roxbury secession movement was growing. That year, there was a nonbinding ballot initiative for Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester and other neighborhoods to break away from Boston and create a new city: Mandela, Massachusetts. If this had come to pass, Mandela would have broken off a quarter of Boston’s land and 98% of its Black residents. News stories from the time describe the Parcel to Parcel program as a sort of peace offering from Boston to Roxbury. 

Parcel 18-1A, at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard is currently a parking lot. (Harriet Rovniak)

CPA argues that three decades later, the city’s promises to Roxbury never materialized. The downtown land linked to Parcel 18 is now the State Street building in the financial district. But the land in Roxbury held a Registry of Motor Vehicles and then went through foreclosure in the 1990s. Northeastern, a predominantly white institution, bought the property in 1997 and has continued to build outwards, first with Renaissance Park Garage and then with International Village. 

“They take up valuable space that could be developed by private developers, where people can work and get economic opportunities,” said CPA President John Cruz, who owns a Roxbury-based construction company. “That would have been available for people like me, and other people of color, to develop those lands in Roxbury.”

CPA also sued Northeastern in 2016 to be recognized as a joint development partner on International Village, but lost when the judge decided a 1999 agreement between CPA and Northeastern was not valid, and that CPA had waited too long to file suit. 

Court documents state CPA intended to develop a hotel on the site where Northeastern now plans to build the new leased apartments. 

“The whole history and backbone of the linkage program was to revitalize the Black community: jobs, housing, healthcare, daycare, et cetera. Right now, on paper, the only one who has benefited by the linkage program is Northeastern University,” Owens said. “These high rise dormitories, they don’t help Black people … They’re not going to be in these dormitories.”

CPA is not the only opponent to the 840 Columbus Ave. proposal. 

City Council President Kim Janey, who is set to become mayor if Mayor Marty Walsh joins President Joe Biden’s administration, filed a public comment in December 2019 opposing Northeastern’s plan.

The whole history and backbone of the linkage program was to revitalize the Black community: jobs, housing, healthcare, daycare, et cetera. Right now, on paper, the only one who has benefited by the linkage program is Northeastern University.”

— Henry Owens

 “[F]or those living in Northeastern’s shadow the benefits they claim to bring to the community go unseen,” she wrote. “[T]he University has consistently fallen short on its promises to be a strong community partner.” 

NU for the Common Good, a coalition of students, alumni and nearby community residents, also submitted a public comment in January 2020 opposing the construction.

“As a student at Northeastern, we have a responsibility to hold Northeastern accountable to be a better community member,” said Danielle Bettio, a fifth-year cultural anthropology major. She signed on to NU for the Common Good’s comment last year. “I think that a lot of students would like [NU] to support community members first, and local people. The rent is just getting too high.” 

The Northeastern Task Force for the 840 Columbus Ave. proposal is having a public meeting with the BPDA Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. on Zoom. 

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