Relations continue unraveling over Ashmont projects

MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas on Monday criticized the Trinity Financial development company and ripped community perception that the transit agency has fumbled its commitments around the renovation of Ashmont Station and adjacent work.

Grabauskas, less than five months into his tenure as T chief, broke with agency habit of staying above the fray, and said he was "astounded" by recent community criticism of the agency's efforts in the $43 million station rehaul and its cooperation with a project next door. Last week, a meeting between activists and T officials grew contentious, and the relationship soured further when the meeting's sponsor sent a letter to Grabauskas saying the community had been "treated unprofessionally and disrespectfully."

As the acrimony mounts, sources at the T and Trinity, among community activists, and in government all claim bewilderment with the stances of others, though most profess long-range optimism about the fate of the station and the Dorchester Avenue development.

"All this could've been avoided, in our opinion, if we'd had a better communication process …" said Bill Richard, president of the St. Mark's Area Main Street board. "We really think everybody's doing the right thing, but it's not being translated well, if that's the case."

Grabauskas insisted Monday that the T remains committed to the station rehaul's second phase, which will include a roof spanning the station, and guaranteed the necessary $10 million in the transit authority's next capital budget, slated for approval early next year. T critics charge that the agency has been vague about Phase 2, which emerged last spring when construction estimates outpaced the T's initial bid by more than $10 million. Grabauskas promised an "iron-clad commitment."

The Ashmont project - eyed as a seminal piece of what activists hope is a rebirth in that area - took a hit in June when the state denied Trinity's request for $3.2 million in housing tax credits, which would have facilitated a 28,000 square-foot mixed-use development on MBTA-owned land next to the station.

On Monday, Grabauskas said the T was absorbing blame for others' failings.

"To blame the MBTA for Trinity's three-and-a-half years of shuffling their feet is wrong," Grabauskas said during an interview at his office arranged by spokesman Joseph Pesaturo. "I'm not in charge of the tax credits for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I don't own a bank that gives out loans."

Tax credits for developers who commit to certain percentages of below-market-rate housing are controlled by the state's Department of Housing and Community Development. Grabauskas said, "I don't know how the MBTA could be blamed when a developer doesn't put in a strong application for funding someplace else."

Another set of tax credits is scheduled for December, and Trinity has submitted a second proposal, with increased residential space and build-to-sell condominiums.

"It's regrettable and disappointing to us that they didn't get their funding that they hoped for, but it's not our fault," said an exasperated Grabauskas, repeating several times that he is eager for the Trinity project to proceed successfully. "And I've been very, very frustrated with the implication that somehow we should be doing more than we are."

He said, "It seems as though the developer has been able to speak to some members of the community and say that somehow their responsibility for getting the deal done is ours."

Trinity project manager Vince Droser declined to respond directly.

Grabauskas also accused the Dorchester-based developer of trying to back out of commitments enshrined in the contract the two sides agreed upon in 2002. In a September 28 letter to Trinity President James Keefe, he said requests to reduce Trinity's annual "landscaping contribution" of $50,000 for 30 years or to shift the contract's 85-year ground lease into an actual purchase would be in violation that would force the offering "to be rebid."

In the interview, Grabauskas said, "Now they want to change the whole deal. It's against the law, plain and simple."

Droser said Trinity hadn't sought to alter the agreement, but that the two sides were quibbling over interpretations.

"There is a difference of opinion between the T and Trinity with regards to what the terms and conditions of the landscape contract are," Droser said. "Trinity believes the fifty-thousand [dollars] should go to a third party, and not to the T."

Another Trinity-MBTA project was cast into doubt briefly last month, when Trinity defaulted on the terms of a project near the TD Banknorth Garden, as reported in a Boston Globe article. Trinity failed to deliver a $210,595 payment on the project, with the check arriving 15 minutes before the close of business on Friday, Sept. 23, Pesaturo said.

"It's a bad coincidence for them," Grabauskas said. "I don't know why they couldn't cut a check on a twentysomething million-dollar deal for $210,000."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino condemned Grabauskas's position as dodging the state's role.

"It shows a lack of commitment from the state," Menino said Tuesday. Asked why the T should be held accountable for another state agency's duties, he replied, "It's one administration. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing."

DHCD spokesman Phil Hailer said Grabauskas wouldn't hold sway over the credit-assignment process.

"It's not his bailiwick," Hailer said Tuesday.

Dealings between the T and community throughout the Red Line renovation process have been inconsistent, swinging from mutually laudatory to mutually suspicious. Rarely has a top T official responded as Grabauskas did this week.

In a September 30 letter, St. Mark's Area Main Street Executive Director Daniel Larner complained to Grabauskas that T Design Director Barbara Boylan did not attend the meeting or "send a proper representative." While the T's project manager attended, no one from the design team came. Larner wrote, "I believe that everyone in the meeting was insulted by this lack of professional courtesy."

Boylan was sick in bed, Grabauskas said, and Larner later called to apologize. He told the Reporter Tuesday he was unaware that Boylan was ill. He said, "I still think the T really fell down on that badly, but it had nothing to do with her."

The relationship between Trinity and state Senator Jack Hart has also been icy at times. A meeting in the spring at Hart's State House office cooled the interactions between the lawmaker and the developer, sources said.

The bitterness among neighborhood leaders, developers, and the T underscores the high stakes all parties agree are involved. Ashmont activists view the station and parcel projects as cornerstones in the effort to remake Peabody Square. Both the state and the T have depicted the transit-oriented development as a "model" for the Romney Administration's "smart-growth" and "fix-it first" policies.

At a mutually congratulatory press conference a year ago last week, Romney then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, along with then-MBTA chief Michael Mulhern, Hart, and other local leaders, hailed the transit-oriented development and station revitalization as precedent-setters.

More than a year later, Finneran's Beacon Hill clout has faded since he left for the private sector, and locals and T officials are unable to agree even about whether or not a meeting with Grabauskas has been requested. Grabauskas said Monday he has not received any, while several private-sector sources were stunned.

"We asked to speak with him, and he has never made himself available to even speak with us," said Christopher Stanley, co-chair of the community advisory committee and a frequent T critic. The next meeting about the Ashmont project, Stanley said, likely will be held on October 18.

"We definitely want the general manager there," Stanley said.