A marijuana entrepreneur tried to convince skeptical Chinatown residents tonight that turning the decaying former Jacob Wirth restaurant into a state-of-the-art cannabis concern would benefit local groups, give jobs to people harmed by the war on drugs and save a national landmark.
In an online meeting, Andrea Pearce, owner of Royalty Group, LLC, outlined her plans to turn the restaurant floor of 31-39 Stuart St. into a roughly 3,740-square foot dispensary selling everything from "flour" to marijuana-laced baked goods, tinctures, vape cannisters and other products. She said she would move her corporate offices, now in the same building as the Royale nightclub on Tremont Street, into the building's upper two floors.
The restaurant closed in 2018 due to water damage from efforts to knock down a fire on one of the floors above it. Pearce said she has a letter of intent to buy the building that is based on her winning city and state approval for her proposed shop, although she added she would seek to bring in an investor willing to help renovate the decaying building to its historic specifications in exchange for a cut of the proceeds from the marijuana sales.
Inside rendering (no piano for singalongs, though):
Pearce said she has agreements with historical consultants to ensure that any work done to the building preserves the old Jacob Wirth building, built in the 1860s for Jacob Wirth himself. The dispensary would have a "history timeline wall" inside about Wirth and his restaurant, she said, adding the name of the dispensary would be JW Tree Star - combining the brand name of her retail operations with an homage to Wirth.
Pearce said if she doesn't win approval, she doubts anybody will pay to fix up the building, because nobody's willing to invest without some guarantee of return - of the sort her cannabis concern could provide. "The building will probably stay empty and it will not be restored and who knows what will happen to it."
The meeting did not get off to a good start because the city Office of Neighborhood Services uses WebEx for its online meetings, rather than Zoom. City Councilor Ed Flynn, who represents Chinatown, said that as soon as the 6 p.m. meeting began, he started getting complaints from Chinese-speaking residents that they could not figure out how to use the less common platform and participate. "That's discouraging to me as their elected official," he said. "I have to make sure their voices are heard."
Pearce agreed to have another community meeting on Zoom, although no date was set. Pearce cannot get a hearing before the Boston Cannabis Board without certification from the city Office of Neighborhood Services that she has completed required neighborhood outreach. In addition to that board, she will also need the approval of the Zoning Board of Appeal and the state Cannabis Control Commission.
If Pearce gets to the zoning board, she will need to seek a variance because the proposed shop is within a half mile of the existing Patriot Care dispensary on Milk Street downtown. Because of that, the Downtown Business Improvement District says it opposes the proposed Stuart Street location.
Pearce said the Jacob Wirth building is ideal for her business because it's in an area that already has numerous regulated businesses, such as bars and nightclubs, and which gets a lot of foot traffic. She estimated 80% of the store's business would be people on foot. She added the space inside is large enough for a queuing area that would mean no people waiting in line outside.
But the Chinatown residents who did make it into the meeting said the fact that the location is in a dense residential neighborhood, one that has suffered tremendously in the past from official neglect and which today has problems with drug and alcohol abusers, is reason enough for them to oppose the proposal.
The dispensary site is not just in an area of bars, restaurants and clubs, "it is in a neighborhood," Nancy Lo said.
"The Chinatown neighborhood has had to contend with all kinds of vices and safety issues due to the legacy of the Combat Zone and the night clubs in the area," resident Helen Wong said in the meeting's group chat. "Chinatown is a residential neighborhood with a huge population of seniors and children -- there are NO benefits of having a recreational cannabis business in this area. As a parent of the local elementary school and a director of a community center that serves youth, I am unequivocally opposed to this proposal."
Pearce said she gets that Chinatown is more than just a collection of bars, clubs and restaurants, and her security director said he will do what it takes to keep kids out - and people from consuming the store's products openly in the streets of Chinatown. But Pearce added that Chinatown residents live "in a metropolitan city where everything colocates together."