By Seth Daniel
There are few things that have symbolized the huge uptick in addiction and homelessness in the Mass/Cass area, also known as Methadone Mile, than the Cumberland Farms store that unofficially, and without much of a choice, served as Ground Zero for the problem – cobbled on a busy street corner between several homeless shelters, major healthcare facilities, multiple Methadone Clinics and what can often be described as an open-air illicit drug market.
Even for Mayor Martin Walsh, the troubled area often included a mental picture of people gathered in front of the store. He conjured up such an image just last month when speaking to the South End Forum in his yearly Conversation with the Mayor, where he described the typical problematic situation as “young men with clean sneakers and a backpack in front of Cumberland Farms.”
That centerpoint of activity, however, has closed down, with Cumberland Farms pulling out of the South End location and issuing a statement this week for the first time that indicated things just weren’t safe there for employees and customers.
“In late December, we made the difficult decision to close our store on Mass. Ave in Boston,” read a statement put out by the company this week. “The decision was largely due to operational challenges as well as ongoing safety issues for our employees and customers at the location. We remain incredibly thankful for the support and dedication of the Boston Police Department, Boston Medical School security and BMC security, and our hearts go out to those affected by homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction in the neighborhood. We have not been informed as to what tenant is taking over the lease at the location. While Cumberland Farms does not currently have any plans to open an additional store in the City of Boston, we are always seeking out new locations and opportunities for the brand.”
The closure of the store was considered a blow to the overall neighborhood and the effort to clean up the Methadone Mile. With one business throwing in the towel, some are worried that other businesses may follow suit – such as the hotels, the gas stations and the coffee shops.
“It’s definitely negative,” said Stephen Fox of the South End Forum. “One of the key components in creating a revitalized and healthy Mass/Cass area is the need for sustainable commercial and retail activity. We need to inject neighborhood friendly street-level attractions that will help to create an environment that draws neighbors and visitors to shop, bump into one another, and foster a normalized neighborhood street-scape. I’m convinced, as are many, that the solution to the crisis we face in the Mass/Cass area today will in no small measure require dramatic and fundamental changes to the physical and economic environment which means residential and commercial infrastructure investment and builds…I think that the Cumberland Farms closure sends an undeniable message. We need to broaden our focus to embrace fundamental physical changes to the area.”
George Stergios, president of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA), said his group will be discussing the closure at its monthly meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24.
He said that discussion will lead to a consensus as to what people think. At this point, there are varying reasons heard around the neighborhood for the store leaving. For example, some have heard that the owner wanted it vacant so as to put in more medical offices.
All that and more, he said, would be discussed on Jan. 24.
Fox said the real solution at the corner will involve looking at all available parcels and envisioning supportive housing in the Methadone Mile area in order to create an environment where retail businesses can survive safely.
“If we begin to think about using linkage and even mitigation funds to build here, we will be taking real steps to create a neighborhood that does not simply shuffle problems off to other parts of the city but does its part to address a needy population while at the same time investing in creating a new economic and commercial model for the area,” Fox said. “That’s if we’re serious about real solutions…Then let’s look at building office and retail spaces, not just one Cumberland Farms, but different options that will help serve visitors to Roundhouse Suites and the Hampton Inn. We also need other neighborhoods of Boston to play a part in supporting the creation of supportive and transitional housing, which they have thus far been reluctant to do.”