A chance for a real Green New Deal

Unique innovation center proposed for Boston State Hospital site

THE GREEN NEW DEAL espoused by politicians sounds great as an abstract concept, but the Neponset Cooperative Trust has come up with a proposal for Boston that translates that high-mindedness into concrete results.

A generation ago, in 1979, the Boston State Hospital terminated its services, one of many hospital closures that formed part of the drive for the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. Since that date and under various administrations, development of the property on the Mattapan line – south of Franklin Park and Forest Hills – has included the Mass Biologics Walk Hill Campus, Mass Audubon’s Nature Center, and over 500 units of housing in the Olmsted Green developments.

Last year, when the state issued a request for proposals for the last 10 acres of land at the site, six proposals were submitted – five of them for housing, the standard urban solution for any open space, and one from the Neponset Cooperative Trust for a Green New Deal Innovation Center.

Each of the housing proposals being considered for the state hospital site contain affordable units that would contribute to fulfilling Mayor Marty Walsh’s pledge to invest $500 million in low- and middle-income housing over the next five years. But Boston also has an unemployment and economic equity problem that Walsh has pledged to address.

The city’s overall unemployment rate looks good at 2.7 percent, but the numbers are not so good in communities of color (Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan) where the rate rises to 11 percent. The unemployment rate peaks at 29 percent in the Dudley, Four Corners, and Franklin Park neighborhoods, areas adjacent to the state hospital site. Somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the residents in this area are poor.

The proposal from the Neponset Cooperative Trust, a consortium of circular economy enterprises, attempts to address these social and economic conditions. The consortium consists of four thriving entities, each of them facing pressure from land prices that threaten their future viability in the city.

City Fresh Foods, based in Roxbury, delivers fresh and healthy foods to Boston schools and other city institutions. It currently employs 120 local workers, and wants to expand that number at the new site.

CERO Cooperative of Roxbury collects and composts food waste in anaerobic digesters, producing methane that is used to generate electricity. The composting company diverts food waste from landfills and produces fertilizer for future food productions. The cooperative’s staff is expected to increase to 50 at the new site.

Hurst Landscaping, based in Dorchester, works throughout the city for private and public institutions. The company plans to increase its staff to 25 at the new location.

Finally, Mattapan Harvest Greenhouses proposes to develop 46,000 square feet of hydroponic greenhouse space growing lettuce and other green vegetables with a workforce of 30.

Each of these enterprises complements the others – fertilizer is used to grow food, food is distributed to those who need it, and food waste is composted to produce fertilizer. An education center will provide on-site training for new employees. The total workforce will be 250 or more, the great majority of whom will come from communities of color in the abutting neighborhoods. Finally, the cooperative structure of the Neponset Cooperative Trust will ensure that workers and management all have a direct financial stake in the success of the enterprise.

Amine Benali, financial advisor to the consortium, supports the innovation center because “it will preserve the small business[es] of the city that are most vulnerable to the commercial real estate market. The learning center … will train and provide certificate degrees for the jobs of the future. Financial mobility is not only about current jobs but also about preparing our citizens for the jobs of tomorrow. This idea is innovative and will put Boston on the cutting edge of climate-friendly urban development.”

Lor Holmes, a worker-owner of the CERO Cooperative, said the Green New Deal innovations will be a model for the whole country.  “All of our businesses adhere to the triple bottom line – planet, people, and profits,” she said. “Because we are doing it cooperatively, we can keep it affordable.”

Developing employment for local residents in a green and sustainable circular economy addresses many of the problems that Walsh and the Boston City Council have pledged to resolve. This project provides opportunities for employment and training, room for small and medium-sized employers to grow, and a creative approach to the growing, distribution, and recycling of fresh organic foods for a population that often lacks access to healthy fare.

Meet the Author
This is what a Green New Deal would look like. It speaks well of the state and the city of Boston that the Neponset Cooperative Trust proposal has made it on to the shortlist of finalists. It would be a first for Boston and a first for the country if this innovative proposal could be translated into reality.

Hubert Murray is an architect who consults and writes on climate resiliency and related issues. From 1989 to 1992, he was chief architect on the Big Dig.