June, 5, 2016 – Boston Globe
They come to learn a sport that’s been native to this neighborhood for decades: Nine-man volleyball, a city version of the beach game created by restaurant workers in the 1930s and still played in Chinatowns up and down the East Coast, by new immigrants and established club teams such as the Boston Knights and the Chinese Freemasons.
But this summer, the future of the game’s home turf in Boston is cloudy.
Reggie Wong Park, that court beneath the Veolia steam plant, is on a parcel being sold by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to clear the area for new development. And while state officials promise a new park to replace it, there’s concern that a neighborhood institution could get lost along the way.
To Russell Eng, who coaches teen volleyball for the Boston Knights, the court is more than a place where his young players learn a game. It’s a cultural hub, where teenagers from Chinese neighborhoods around the region can ride the T to practice and meet older generations, new immigrants, and each other.
“It’s very hard to keep the fabric of this community together. A lot of my players would never know each other,” said Eng, a nephew of the court’s namesake. “The only place to do that centrally is Reggie Wong Park.”
The park, along with a Department of Transportation office building, Veolia’s steam plant, and surface parking lots, is on a 5.5-acre parcel that is the centerpiece of Governor Charlie Baker’s push to sell underused state land to raise cash for the Commonwealth and open sites for development.
Its two full blocks along Kneeland Street could hold 1.5 million to 2 million square feet of housing, office, and commercial space, city and state officials say, at the foot of the Southeast Expressway and a stone’s throw from South Station.
“This is something I believe has tremendous potential,” Baker said at a joint news conference with Mayor Martin J. Walsh when they launched the project in February.
That potential will be shaped in the coming weeks, as the Transportation Department finalizes a request for proposals to send developers later this year. That document would serve as a baseline for what might be built there — setting guidelines for use, density, and open space — though specific plans must be approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
It’s a balancing act, said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack. The state needs to receive enough for the property in order to replace Veolia’s steam plant, relocate the Transportation Department’s District 6 headquarters, and ideally help fund other programs. So it’s reluctant to write in too many requirements and scare off bidders. But it also knows many in the neighborhood have their own visions for the site, from affordable housing to a grocery store, perhaps even a library.
“We do try to balance the need to make a certain return with what we hear from the community about what they want there,” Pollack said.
Still, many in the community worry they’re not being heard. Last week, a number of Chinatown organizations — including the volleyball clubs — signed a letter to the Transportation Department saying they’re “profoundly disappointed” in the agency’s outreach so far. State officials have held a series of public meetings, said Lydia Lowe, codirector of the Chinese Progressive Association, but give little indication they’re listening.
“We want community priorities written into any development guidelines,” she said. “We haven’t gotten any good response to that.”
‘We want community priorities written into any development guidelines.’Lydia Lowe, Chinese Progressive Association
One of their top priorities is affordable housing.
A decade ago, when the state sought proposals to develop another parcel along nearby Hudson Street that was left over from the Big Dig, neighborhood groups pushed to require that 40 percent of housing on the site be affordable. That resulted in 95 apartments for low-income renters in a building that opened last year, and 51 affordable condominiums next door are under construction.
“We’re hopeful something like that can be done again,” said Angie Liou, acting executive director of Asian Community Development Corp., which helped develop that project.
But transportation officials signaled that affordable housing requirements won’t be as generous this time, calling 40 percent “a challenge” in a recent memo on the project. And while Pollack suggested the building could accommodate more affordable units than the 13 percent required by Boston city policy, she said Thursday it was “premature” to talk specific numbers.
Another priority is Reggie Wong Park. The Chinatown letter detailed design of the courts and hours of operation (noon to 11 p.m.) and insisted that it not be moved. Pollack said she hears the message “loud and clear,” and state officials will discuss their plan in more detail at a meeting Tuesday night.
But to those who came up playing there and now use it to teach a new generation, it’s hard not to be anxious.
Eng notes the park’s overhead lights were taken down for repair recently — at the start of summer when the courts are in use almost every night — and haven’t been replaced yet. That makes him nervous. So do the questions of what might happen during construction and the general lack of specifics coming out of the state.
“This is something we’ve used and owned and maintained for a long time,” Eng said. “And now someone’s going to put a 2-million-square-foot building there? How do we know what’s going to happen?”