BOSTON (WHDH) - A coalition of Boston businesses and neighborhood groups kicked off a campaign Friday calling for creation of a recovery campus at the MBTA-owned Widett Circle, pitching it as a way to relieve the unyielding pressures of drug use and homelessness in the area known as “Mass. and Cass.”
Leaders of the South End Forum, which represents neighborhood associations in Boston’s South End, and the Newmarket Business Improvement District unveiled a proposal that would stand up dozens of temporary cabins that could support residents through various steps of recovery.
They set their sights on Widett Circle, a 24-acre property that was previously home to the New Boston Food Mart Corporation, had been eyed as a cornerstone of Boston’s ultimately suspended Olympics bid, and is now owned by the MBTA with plans to transform it into a major rail yard.
Steve Fox, who chairs the South End Forum, said the “overriding objective” is to divert people away from the area near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, which has become a hub for open-air drug use, tent encampments and reports of violence, and toward a self-contained location equipped to provide services.
“We can’t wait any longer. We have to do something now,” said Sue Sullivan, president of the Newmarket Business Improvement District, whose boundaries include the infamous intersection. “We can’t wait. The residents can’t wait, the businesses can’t wait, and the victims on the street can’t wait.”
Sullivan said the plan her group and others crafted would use between five and seven acres of Widett Circle for a period of three or four years. The site would have five “zones,” each one designed to support a different phase of addiction recovery with on-site services as well as amenities such as laundry, bathrooms and a cafeteria.
“Today, if somebody gets into recovery, and they have a relapse, it’s more likely than not that they will be asked to leave a recovery center, or leave a place where they’re on the journey,” Fox said. “By creating a … recovery campus, we’re saying that we’re not going to kick people to the curb. If you have a relapse, or if there’s a problem, then we simply move you back into the cycle.”
Altogether, Sullivan said, a three-year commitment would cost about $25 million, which she said could be split between the city, state, federal government and private funders. She estimated that if the plan quickly wins support, the site could be up and running by winter.
Fox and Sullivan likened the proposal to Long Island, which previously housed a treatment campus in the Boston Harbor until officials closed the bridge to the island in 2014 because it was structurally unsafe.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is working to rebuild the bridge and open a new center, but it could take years, and Sullivan said community members cannot wait that long for change.
Organizers unveiled their proposal Friday with support from the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Andrew Square Civic Association, Rep. John Moran of Boston and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins.
“When you work and you live in this area, your heart breaks each and every day that you traverse these streets when you see people that are in serious need of mental health care or substance use care,” Tompkins said at the press conference. “Unfortunately, the dollars aren’t there. Maybe the political willpower is not there to create these beds so that people that are impacted by these ills would have a place to go and not to a carceral facility.”
Elected officials have long described the situation at Mass. and Cass as dire, and Wu said earlier this month that it was time to “reorient” the approach, warning that conditions had become “too dangerous” for some workers.
However, it’s not yet clear if officeholders will get on board with the idea floated by local businesses and civic groups, nor how they might reconcile it with existing plans for use of the Widett Circle property.
Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Gov. Maura Healey, said only that the administration is “open to hearing from stakeholders about potential pathways to connect those suffering from substance use disorder with treatment and shelter.”
The MBTA — now overseen by Healey — in April completed a $255 million purchase of the parcel, where agency officials plan to install new commuter rail facilities that would store and maintain vehicles. Officials have said the new site is critical to reducing train congestion on the Fairmount Line, increasing platform space at South Station and cutting diesel emissions in the area.
Wu’s office indicated city officials met with the South End Forum and the Newmarket Business Improvement District, but did not offer many more details.
“Residents can expect to see new approaches in the coming weeks, including increased law enforcement, to better serve the residents of the neighborhood and address persistent challenges,” an unsigned statement from the mayor’s press office said.
Asked about next steps, Sullivan said supporters want to create a steering committee and bring together various entities in one forum.
“Through everyone — it had to be 50 different people that we spoke with — everyone was positive about the framework, was positive about the need for the comprehensiveness of this plan,” Sullivan said. “There was no one that looked at us and said, ‘I hate the plan.'”