The Boston Licensing Board this morning approved a Burger King in the Shops at Riverwood strip mall on River Street, with the support of one neighborhood group pleased to finally see a restaurant, even if a Burger King, move into the mall and the outraged opposition of another neighborhood group, which accused the developer and the chain of exacerbating the poor health of black residents in the surrounding area.
Board Chairwoman Kathleen Joyce and member Liam Curran voted in favor of granting a food-serving license to the 50-seat outlet; member Keeana Saxon voted against.
At a contentious hearing held on Zoom yesterday, mall developer Todd Finard said he first began looking for a restaurant for the mall more than 14 years ago, as his company tore down the long closed Bay State Paper mill to make way for the mall.
Finard said he tried his best to get a restaurant serving good food to open a sit-down restaurant, ideally one with outdoor seating and the like and that he spoke to "every conceivable restaurant operator I could find," even Bertucci's, the 99 and IHOP, but that none ever committed to opening there.
Finally, he said, he found the Dhanani Group of Sugar Land, TX, which operates 850 Burger King franchises across the country, including many in New England. Construction on the new restaurant finished earlier this year.
Barbara Hamilton, president of the East River Street Neighborhood Association, which has been working with Finard all this time, acknowledged that "Burger King was not our first choice," but told the licensing board that her group supported its opening.
But members of the Belnel Family Neighborhood Association, on the other side of the mall, vehemently opposed the proposal.
First, they slammed the mayor's office for failing to alert them to the idea of a Burger King until earlier this year.
But then they tore into the very idea of a Burger King, another fast-food joint in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood, one that already struggles with obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
They urged the board to reject the chain's request for a food-serving license as a menace to that community in general and to its children in particular - such as the hundreds of students across the street at the Boston Preparatory Charter School and behind the mall at the Match Community Day Charter School. Such a rejection would be especially critical now, when Covid-19 is ravaging the black community in particular, and the last thing people need is fast food that would only worsen, or start, the underlying conditions that could make getting Covid-19 even riskiers.
One speaker called the restaurant "essentially a public-health genocide against this community." Others did not go to that extreme, but said kids don't need another place to load up on fatty, salty fast food when there are already Burger Kings in Mattapan and Roslindale, not to mention other nearby fast-food outlets, including McDonald's, Subway and Papa Gino's.
"We don't need it, we don't want it and we really want our children to be healthy," Mukiya Baker-Gomez said.
Marilynne Smith Quarcoo pointed to heavy traffic on River Street and said that in addition to the dietary issues, she objected to the restaurant's proposed midnight closing time - when the Burger King on Cummins Highway in Mattapan is only open until 8 p.m. Longer hours only increase the odds that the outlet will "criminalize more youth in our community, not even just youth because we know that adults are criminalized [as well]," she said.
An official at the Match school also urged the board to reject the proposed license, saying the school tries to get students to eat healthy, so the last thing they need is "another unhealthy food operation" in the neighborhood.
Resident Gladys Frias said, "We don't want kids congregating there when they should be in school or going home for the day."
Representatives for city councilors Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Mattapan and Roslindale), Michelle Wu (at large) and Annissa Essaibi George (at large) asked the board to defer action so that Finard could meet again with the Belnel group to try to work out their differences.
Finard expressed frustration at getting caught in the crossfire between the East River Street and Belnel groups. He said City Hall directed him from the outset to work with East River Street and that he wouldn't have had a problem working with Belnel, but that he was only doing what the mayor's office told him to do.
Hamilton, of the East River Street group, expressed frustration as well. She said that, unlike Belnel, her group has had regular meetings for years and that it's long considered the interests of Belnel residents and tried to get them to come to her group's meeting on common issues - to the point of "flyering" houses in that area.
The board has rejected fast-food outlets over nutritional and neighborhood-saturation issues in the past.
But in her questioning of Finard yesterday, Joyce indicated she did not find that a valid argument here, because the nearest fast-food chain outlet to the site, a Subway shop, is 1.1 miles away. Curran and Saxon did not indicate their positions during the hearing.