Weekend construction work in the South End has become like an unwelcome guest – refusing to leave and showing up at the worst possible moments.
A packed meeting on Thursday, Oct. 8, showcased the problem that has re-emerged in the South End regarding weekend construction work, which had been restricted earlier this year with a specialized and coordinated system between the Mayor’s Office and Inspection Services Commissioner Buddy Christopher.
Work was only to be granted in emergency cases.
Since that little piece of relief was instituted, though, many residents have claimed that weekend work is being granted too often, and there seems to be an emergency every weekend.
More than 100 people turned out at the D-4 Station Community Room to discuss the matter, and to quiz developers and Christopher as to why so many large projects are getting the green light on weekends and after-hours (defined as after 6 p.m.).
South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox said he has been hearing of many weekend jobs from neighbors, with him being one of the key point people in the neighborhood for the issue.
“I’m hearing from many, many people in the South End that there is an increased encroachment of after-hours and weekend work, whether permitted or not, on these work sites,” he said at the meeting’s outset. “We needed to address this as a community.”
The zenith of that jagged peak of frustration has been at The Smith, formerly Harrison Albany, and to a lesser extent at the old Quinzani Bakery site by Related Beal and also Holland Construction’s project on Wareham Street. As bigger developers simultaneously have entered the South End neighborhood with large projects, many neighbors believe they are getting preferential treatment and allowed to craft their timelines based on getting weekend waivers.
There was some confusion at the outset, as Christopher said the policy has not changed, and assured everyone that he is still following protocol and has only forgotten a few times to follow the procedure.
“The mayor’s position is to protect neighborhoods 100 percent,” he said. “It’s my position to have to make difficult decisions about this work. I want you to know that protecting the neighbors is my top priority, but there are times when I have to go against the general rule to keep projects moving. The neighborhood has to decide if they want allow weekend work for projects so they will go quicker. If they work some weekends, they might finish two or three weeks ahead. That’s a discussion we have with the neighbors. It’s not a decision I make. If people wouldn’t want to allow weekend work, the project will just go longer. If they want it go quicker, we can allow weekend work…We’re not here to change the existing policy in place, 100 percent no.”
Christopher said there were some exceptions for weekend work now in the pipeline. That included the BU Goldman Dental School project that requires weekend work because the state won’t allow Albany Street to be impeded on a weekday. Another weekend permit comes from Related Beal at the Quinzani, which needed to work to shore up structural issues on neighboring buildings. He said not allowing them to go over the normal limits could endanger other structures around them.
All of that seemed by the book.
Many were left to wonder if the purpose of the meeting, which was to appeal to the community for more weekend work, was really the purpose of the meeting. After Christopher made his comments, he had to leave for another meeting. Many residents followed him out, but what they missed afterwards was just what many feared – an appeal by Suffolk Construction to work for long periods of time after hours.
The Smith has had weekend work and after-hours work several times through August and September, including over Labor Day weekend, and they told the remaining audience members for their blessing to work after-hours on weekdays up until 10 p.m. or perhaps midnight.
The work would involve concrete finishers who would use three trowel machines twice a week as they pour each level of The Smith. The machines would sound like lawnmowers and the work would stretch from December to May.
“We’re not here to ask for weekend work,” said Jason Nadeau of Suffolk. “We understand what you’re saying on that. We’re asking for the ability to work after-hours on Monday through Fridays as we pour concrete-slab floors.”
He said they bring in concrete trucks to do the pour, and they finish about 2 p.m. Then, he said, the process for drying and finishing the concrete takes many more hours, requiring about eight workers to stay and use the machines into the evening and night hours.
It was exactly what many neighbors did not want to hear.
“Just because you say it’s impossible to finish does not make it the neighborhood’s problem,” said Nicola Truppin, who doesn’t live near the Smith but was worried about the overall policy. “I really feel you’re giving us a soft sell. A lawnmower can be loud in the middle of the night. I would feel it really difficult to be in favor of allowing a chip at this…We don’t want to allow this chip because another developer will come in and that’s the slippery slope.”
That slippery slope is precisely what Fox has been arguing could happen if residents don’t sound off. He said that if they don’t sound off, the police could become useless and unenforceable due to so many requests to bend the rules.
“If this were a one-off thing, ok, but we’re taking about a serious encroachment in working through May,” said Fox. “Who knows what’s beyond May? Then there’s another building too. That has people worried. The crane work was a one-off and this is a long duration request. We want to make sure you don’t go broke, but we want to keep you within the restraints that exist.”
Residents were unhappy that it appeared the construction timeline for The Smith had after-hours and weekend waivers built in, even though it was known that only emergencies in the South End warrant such work permits.
Some residents suggested Suffolk bring in more concrete trucks and reduce the pouring time, therefore allowing more drying time during the regular hours of the day.
It was possible, but not popular with the company.
“It is doable,” said Nadeau. “It just changes the way we’re thinking about the construction of the building. We’ll have to go back and think about that.”
Kyle Szary, a trustee of one of the abutting buildings to The Smith, said that in the end the meeting was about changing the policy. He said developers need to understand when they come to the South End, they need to build their schedule around the neighbors, not the other way around.
“There are plenty of successful projects in the neighborhood that have worked within the confines of these restrictions and didn’t break this precedent,” he said. “That’s my problem here because it does appear that they built the schedule around the assumption they would get these waivers.”