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Tent City, Copley Place, and the bed of muck

Marsha Wiley sits in her wheelchair on a littered sidewalk in Boston's racially mixed South End. Behind her are the staring windows of $361 Columbus Avenue, the vacant city-owned building recently taken over by squatters. She is talking about the city's latest $400 million-plus building project several blocks away.

"I see no possible benefit from it for the South End or the Fenway or the Back Bay," she asserts, adding, "not for low- income people."

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From his ninth-floor office in City Hall, robert Ryan, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), overlooks a splendid view of quincy Market and the many developments along Boston Harbor.

He talks about the same project, which he describes as the largest private construction investment ever made in the city, and probably one of the top 10 in the country. "This is filling a major void in the city on a piece of land that is [at present] tax-exempt," he says, adding, "It really is going to be a linkage between Back Bay and the South End."

Worlds apart, they are discussing the same thing: the Copley Place development now being built over a Massachusetts Turnpike interchange and some vacant land between the Prudential and hancock towers.

Why such different views? Are they simply the result of the gnats of controversy that inevitably swarm around anything new? Or is there an underlying problem still to be addressed?

In the view of BRA officials, Copley Place is a marvelous smorgasbord. Two new hotels will add 1,900 rooms to the city's pinched but expanding inventory of accommodations. Four seven-story office buildings, linked by a glass-roofed atrium, will add 700,000 square feet of Class A office space. Some 370,000 square feet more will be given over to restaurants, theaters, and retail shops -- like the new 100,000- square-foot Neiman-Marcus department store. More than 1,400 cars will find indoor parking. Rounding it out will be 100 units of mixed-income housing.

Even the merchants in the surrounding areas are cautiously enthusiastic. The project, says Stuart Robbins, executive director of the Back Bay Association, will "definitely have a positive impact on the Back Bay." It will, he says, make the area the hotel center of the city. That will increase pressure to expand Hynes Auditorium, the city's only major convention site. The conventioneers, in turn, will put added zing into the shops along Newbury and Boylston Streets.

He does have some worries: that shoppers, once charmed into Copley's Place's magic kingdom, may not circulate freely to other nearby stores, and that a 30 percent increase in demand for restaurants may tilt the area toward the taco-town and burger-borough flavors of fast-food chains. In general, however, "we really do feel it's a case of the more, the merrier," he says.

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Mr. Ryan agrees. Copley Place will, he hopes, draw in shoppers from the western suburbs, both along the turnpike and by train through the soon-to-be-rebuilt South Station.Along with $90 million in trade, the various businesses will also bring something for residents as well: 6,000 new jobs.

Residents will mot have to wait until the project opens in 1984 for the benefits, either. Under one of the most innovative plans of its kind in the nation, the city has flatly mandated that 50 percent of all construction jobs be given to Boston residents.

Nor will minorities be ignored. The city has further ordered that 30 percent of the jobs -- at all levels, not just for heavy lifting down in the mud -- be given to minorities and that 10 percent be given to women. and the city has set aside 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of retail space for community businesses, part of it reserved for minorities.

The project, in fact, reads like an everything-you've always-wanted-in-a-city list. Unless, that is, you are one of the city's considerable body of low- and middle-income folk caught up in the housing crunch -- living in cars, as whole families do in this city, or crowded five deep into one-bedroom apartments.

To them, such an expenditure of $400 million seems both irrelevant and irreverent. As Mrs. Wiley notes, she won't be needing the hotels, can't afford to shop at Neiman-Marcus, and may not find any grocery stores there below the gourmet class.

These attitudes apparently underlie the latest turn of events over at 361 Columbus Avenue. Since May 13, a dozen squatters ahve been camping out among the broken walls and warped floors of that BRA-owned building. Electricity comes from a cable spliced into a streetlight outside. Someone has put up a new plywood door, with lock. Other helpers are scraping the walls (to remove lead-based paint), removing wallpaper, shoveling out the considerable amounts of trash, and mounting a 24-hour security patrol and arson watch.

The building, in fact, is the latest frontier of the Tent City protests that began in 1968. Then, crowds of the displaced set up tents on a vacant lot near the present Copley Place development -- to dramatize the shortage of housing space.

Out of that original demonstration grew an agreement to use the South End site for 270 units of housing. Eighteen months ago, Mr. Ryan says, "all the interested developers on Tent City agreed on what the program should be." It was to include 25 percent "market rate" housing, with the rest low- and middle-income housing. It would have a garage for some 200 cars -- crucial to the financial success of the program, according to the BRA. It was to be a $29 million project, with about $9 million coming from a federal grant. Most important, it was to come to fruition simultaneously with Copley Place.

And then, in April, negotiations for the assembly of the necessary parcels of land broke down -- just days before the grant application was due in Washington. Part of the site included a parking lot owned by the family of former fire commissioner William Fitzgerald. It wanted to manage the development of the site. But the community-based Tent City Corporation objected to that arrangement, and the Fitzgeralds withdrew their offer to sell. Tempers flared.

Some blame the Fitzgeralds. Cyndi Koebert of the South End Project Area Committee asks, "How does a fire commissioner start buying up lots of property?" She notes that the Fitzgeralds, whose parcel was appraised at $630,000 in 1979, are now asking $1.2 million.

But blame inevitably flies upward, and has come to roost on the BRA. Why, critics ask, hasn't the BRA moved more quickly? Why does it own 84 parcels of land in the South End which are yet to be developed? Why has the Columbus Avenue property stood vacant for seven years? Why did 600 people line up for 30 units of subsidized housing in the Fenway June 2 and 3? Can't the city dom something?

Mr. Ryan, seeing the housing problem as more than a local one, complains that "it is not being addressed by any kind of national policy." Holding out little hope for reconciliation between the two sides in the Tent City dispute, he agrees that the power of eminent domain may be an option. But "we would use it as sparingly as possible," he says, noting the costly, slow litigation that would almost certainly follow.

He also counters that the BRA is in the process of advertising for developers of the various South End parcels. Furthermore, he says, the South End -- which has one of the highest concentrations of Victorian row houses left in the country -- also has the highest percentage of subsidized housing for low-income residents (40 percent) of any neighborhood in the city. "The track record," he says simply, "is excellent."

Is it? For years, the South End has been the victim of a powerful symbol of separation -- the Penn Central Railway, neatly dividing the South End from the Back Bay. There were few bridges: The South End was literally on the other side of the tracks.

Now, however, Copley Place will stretch across the railroad right of way, which is scheduled to become the new Southwest Corridor for the Orange Line subway. But this time it will run underground, covered with parks and trees, from South Station to Massachusetts Avenue. The gap is being Spanned.

A promise of hope, that also signals danger. For, as in third-world countries where massive riches live cheek by jowl with ruinous poverty, such proximity could enhance the sense of futility. If, as many think, those 6,000 new jobs will be largely in low-paying hotel work, those holding them will not be able to afford the South End.

The danger in such futility is that it breeds envy. And envy -- a problem insufficiency recognized as central to Boston's social and political problems -- will destroy the very thing the city needs to survive: the mental climate that respects private wealth and attracts it into projects that benefit the public.

Envy, in fact, is the besetting danger of boston's urban development. Are the envious at fault? Yes. But even more must the blame rest on those who give occasion for envy -- who busily raise monuments to exclusive smack among those who already feel excluded.

The city is erasing one symbol, the railway line. Unfortunately for symbol-mongers, the filled land of the Back Bay offers another: It is founded upon a bed of muck. you drive pilings 100 feet down into the goo before you can begin building upward. That fact must not be allowed to grow into a social metaphor. Copley Place deserves our admiration -- as a place that overcomes the limitations of its site, not as a luxury founded upon mud. The success of the project requires that the BRA's next step be both symbolic and practical: It must bend its efforts, with all the commitment and authority it can muster, toward developing the Tent City site.

For man does not live by Neiman-Marcus alone. He also nee ds a home.

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