‘Lost in the Shuffle’: Allston Advocates Criticize Community Benefits Process as Inconsistent, Unaccountable


Updated: Sunday, April 7 at 2:38 p.m.

In August 2020, Allston Village Main Streets — a nonprofit for local business — had just been awarded $25,000.

A developer wanted to build a 6-story building near their office, and under the city of Boston’s review process, they were required to negotiate a package of community benefits — grants, programs, and the like — for the surrounding neighborhood.

A year later, the project received the green light, but the $25,000 didn’t come. It took the efforts of a neighborhood advocate to track down the money, which the nonprofit intended to use for workers’ relief, and secure the sum 10 months late.


And, according to Anna Leslie – the advocate who worked to find their money — Allston Village Main Streets’ problem wasn’t an uncommon one.

“We actually don’t know how often these are falling through the cracks, because there isn't a public system of accountability around benefits,” Leslie said.

As massive developments sweep Allston and Brighton, tens of millions worth in community benefit dollars are at stake. Yet, local advocates say these benefits are difficult to track and inconsistently delivered — leaving the neighborhood in a state of uncertainty about whether developers have followed through on their promises.

They also point to a lack of accountability mechanisms at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, saying the agency lacks any real way to hold developers to any timeline or ensure that their benefits are delivered and implemented.

In an email, Brittany Comak, a spokesperson for the BPDA, wrote that the agency uses “fiscal management systems” to track benefits funding, and has a set compliance staff responsible for working with the agency’s legal, administrative, and finance departments to oversee developers’ obligations.

“Our Compliance Staff is responsible for ensuring that the funds committed get to the end user,” Comak wrote.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that health care giant Steward Health Care — which spiraled into a financial crisis this year — failed to deliver $150,000 in benefits to the Allston Brighton Health Collaborative, which Leslie runs. Only after Leslie went public with the shortfall did Steward deliver on the money they had agreed to pay.

“I for one will not be asking Steward for any money ever again,” Leslie said in a February interview.

In another instance from a 2014 agreement, Boston College pledged millions in scholarships for local students and a host of other initiatives — computer training, homebuyer assistance, a pre-apprenticeship trade program — as part of its 2009 Institutional Master Plan.

A decade later, Maria G. M. Rodrigues, a member of Brighton Neighbors United who took part in the 2014 negotiations, said she couldn’t find a way to check in on whether any of those benefits had been delivered. The plan, she said, suffered from a “lack of transparency.”

“The community benefits agreement is a legal document – a legal document that has no enforcement mechanisms,” she said. “If something is not happening, where do we go?”

A spokesperson for Boston College responded to a request for comment but did not address questions about whether several of BC’s commitments to fund computer education, construction employment, and mortgage and homebuyer assistance to Allston and Brighton residents had been carried out. Comak, the BPDA spokesperson, also did not address whether those commitments had been delivered.

The spokesperson said the scholarships had been delivered and defended how benefit grants were decided and distributed.

“The selection process for the grants is public and transparent,” the spokesperson wrote. “It involves input and review by the BC Task Force, Boston College and the BPDA, and the general community at public meetings.”

Residents interviewed by The Crimson said the burden was on their shoulders to see that promised community benefit commitments were carried through.

Jason Desrosier, who formerly worked at the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, a local nonprofit, compared it to a “perpetual game of whack-a-mole.”

He said he at one point created a spreadsheet to track benefits that had been promised over the years — including where they went and whether they had been delivered.

Desrosier found that two projects since 2021 — 40 Rugg Rd. and 30 Penniman Rd. — both promised tens of thousands of dollars for improvements to the nearby Penniman Park, popular with children in the area. In the intervening years, he said, nothing seems to have changed about the park.

“I emailed the project manager for that particular project, and I got the email back where it’s like, ‘oh, we don't know what happened to those funds,’” Desrosier said, referring to the development at 30 Penniman Rd.

In an email to The Crimson on Thursday, the Department of Parks and Recreation confirmed they had received funds from both projects in 2022 and 2021, respectively, adding that they were just beginning the process for improving Penniman Park.

Though the funds were delivered on time, advocates said the case is illustrative of the broader challenge in tracking community benefits — even when they are working directly with the developer to negotiate the benefit package.

Alba S. Oliver has been on four separate Impact Advisory Groups in Allston/Brighton, helping to negotiate mitigation and benefit packages for a host of developments. She said that benefits were too often determined by people who don’t reflect the diversity of the area.

Once the negotiations have finished, she said, IAG members aren’t kept in the loop.

“I took time out of my life to serve on an IAG,” she said. “I want to know what’s happening.”

In the BPDA’s statement to the Crimson, Comak acknowledged that the community benefits process “may at times seem opaque to the public.”

“We are committed to making our community benefits process more transparent and predictable through the Modernization project going on now,” she wrote, referencing ongoing efforts to reform the city’s development review process.

In 2020, as a benefit of the same project as the Allston Village Main Streets — 449 Cambridge St. — hundreds of thousands of dollars were promised to the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation. Executive Director John Woods said they had planned to use it for specific restorations and preservation projects of their own affordable housing stock.

But when the project saw a rise in construction and financing costs, the delivery of the benefits stalled.

“The Allston Brighton CDC was grateful for the initial commitment of resources, but because of the delays, we’ve had to scramble to find alternative resources to fill the gap on those funds that were originally committed,” Woods said.

Paul F. Creighton Jr., director of the Allston Brighton Area Planning Action Council, said that the haphazard nature of the permitting process — especially when permitting rights are transferred from one developer to another — means that community benefit commitments can fall through the cracks, even if benefits obligations carry over to the next developer.

“They get lost in the shuffle,” he said.

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at Follow him on X @jackrtrapanick.