Proposal for Mattapan multifamily ignites ZBA controversy

60 Oakridge is the vacant lot on the right. (Image via Google Maps)

The city’s development boom is leading to an increase in the number of residential units in buildings big and small, as City Hall hopes to alleviate a housing crisis driven by demand outstripping supply across the region.

That development has led to street-level verbal clashes in the neighborhoods as residents who oppose proposals are jousting with developers and neighbors who are in support, ratcheting up tensions that were on full display at the Zoning Board of Appeal’s (ZBA) recent approval of a Mattapan multifamily on Oakridge Street, between Morton Street and Gallivan Boulevard.

The developer, Derick Joyner, wants to build a three-family home, with three parking spaces in the back, at 60 Oakridge St., a vacant lot next to 56 Oakridge, a single-family home that he also owns.

The portion of the ZBA’s Sept. 27 virtual meeting that focused on 60 Oakridge was a messy affair, featuring an expletive shouted at Joyner and a back-and-forth over the project’s community support and opposition. After Eric James, City Hall’s liaison to Mattapan, told board members that support narrowly outweighed opposition, the panel voted to approve the project, which was seeking zoning relief.

The controversy continued offline. Members of the Lower Mills Civic Association, which opposed the project, arguing it was too much density for the area, filed a public records request with City Hall and discovered that the reverse of James’s statement was true: Opposition outweighed support.

Mark Brunke, a longtime member of the Lower Mills civic, said they were spurred to file the request because James’s count of supporters during the meeting “raised some red flags.”

During the meeting, James had said the count was 14 letters in support and 13 in opposition. But in documents obtained through the group’s public records request and shared with the Reporter, the letters of support and opposition were written by a small group of individuals and counted multiple times. Some of the letters also referred to a similar project at 56 Oakridge that Joyner, the developer, pulled back on last year, but they were all collected in the same file. Overall, six people supported Joyner and his proposals, while 10 opposed them.

A spokesperson for Mayor Wu’s office said that James, who began working for the Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) this summer, “miscounted” when noting how many letters he had received in support and opposition. He had received 12 letters in support and 13 in opposition, according to the spokesperson. “This miscount was not intentional and upon realizing the mistake, Eric provided this information to the ZBA” on Oct. 13.

The civic group’s public records request did not ask for relevant documents from the Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS), just from the ZBA and the city’s inspectional services department. The spokesperson shared ONS documents with the Reporter “in an effort to be transparent and show community process.” The documents overlapped with those in the civic group’s records request.

Brunke, the civic group member, saying counting multiple letters from one person, either for or against a project, is “absurd,” called for a new hearing on the project. “It was approved on erroneous information,” he said.

Reached over email, Mark Erlich, the acting ZBA chair, declined to comment on the miscount. He has served as the acting chair since September, when Wu announced a plan to overhaul the panel through a raft of new appointments. Her appointees remain in a City Council committee, but the mayor’s move in September caused the longtime chair, Christine Araujo, to abruptly resign.

Nadine Marcellus, who lives around the corner on Ellison Street, appeared before the ZBA on Sept. 27 and voiced support for the 60 Oakridge project, saying it will increase the value of homes in the Mattapan/Lower Mills area. “The people who oppose this want everything looking like the 1950s,” she said.

Erlich later turned to Joyner, who also attended the virtual meeting. Erlich said he initially believed the project faced significant opposition, but he noted the 14-13 count from James. He asked Joyner to respond to the opposition, as well as to the concern from some about removing some mature trees from the property. Joyner said that the trees are more than 100 years old and “somewhat unhealthy.” That remark prompted someone at the meeting to break in and swear at Joyner in disagreeing over the health of the trees.

Erlich moved to calm tensions and Joyner said he plans to plant two new trees in the front of the property and two new trees in the back. The board approved the project later in the meeting.

In an interview with the Reporter, Joyner defended his proposal, saying when he was initially before the ZBA in 2021, he planned to tear down the existing single-family structure at 56 Oakridge and build a three-unit building, in addition to a three-unit building on the vacant lot.

“This year I decided to preserve the single family,” he said, “and not demolish and renovate it as is, and the vacant lot was the only proposal for the three units.” He accused opponents of circulating misinformation about his project in the lead-up to the ZBA vote in September.

Joyner also took aim at Brunke, who received a variance on his property at 48 Oakridge in 2006, when it was converted into a three-family from a two-family. Joyner said he is a minority developer while Brunke is a Caucasian man. “Why are they picking on me? Why are they cursing on the phone? It’s not fair, it’s not right. I grew up in Mattapan,” Joyner said.

Asked to respond, Brunke said his conversion moved the location of one interior door, preserved the architecture and there was no change in scale or the overall size of the building, which is now three one-bedroom apartments, one of which he lives in. His project is not comparable to the 60 Oakridge proposal, Brunke said, because each unit would have three bedrooms.

“We have wanted to negotiate with Mr. Joyner every step along the way,” he said. “We want to reach an agreement with Mr. Joyner to build something that’s appropriately sized for this neighborhood.”

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