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Residents, advocates, work to save Chinatown row houses

Advocates and residents, both current and former, of Chinatown’s Maple Place and Johnny Court, demonstrated Tuesday in an effort to protect historic row houses from developers.
Advocates and residents, both current and former, of Chinatown’s Maple Place and Johnny Court, demonstrated Tuesday in an effort to protect historic row houses from developers. (Photos by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

They are vestiges of Chinatown’s working-class immigrant community, the small brick row houses that line one of the last untouched pockets of a neighborhood that has been roiled by development.

Boston’s building boom is threatening the historic houses, an incursion that could displace residents who have made Chinatown New England’s largest Chinese community.

On Tuesday, several dozen residents and activists rallied outside the latest of the houses targeted for redevelopment – a two-story dwelling that shares a fire escape and sewer system with its neighbor and that the developer wants to double in size. The protesters called on the city to do more to protect these relics from gentrification.

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“The whole community has changed,” said Mei Qun Huang, who lived in the row house at 2 Johnny Court with her husband and three children for more than 20 years before they were forced out by rent increases in 2015.

Now, she said, her old apartment is used as a short-term rental through Airbnb, part of a growing industry that has similarly consumed other low-income rentals in the neighborhood.

“We need to keep Chinatown a community for working-class families, and to do that we need to protect our row houses,” she said.

Meanwhile, an investment developer recently got approval from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal to cramp two additional units on top of the row house at 9 Johnny Court – despite the abutter’s concerns that the construction could jeopardize her own structure, which shares a fire escape, sewage system, and a small backyard.

Wendy Yee on the stairs of her two-story row house at 7 Johnny Court.
Wendy Yee on the stairs of her two-story row house at 7 Johnny Court.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Wendy Yee, the abutter who raised her family in the two-story row house for several decades and now rents it out at low rates to those from the Chinese community, said her greatest fear is the effect the development will have on a neighborhood where every family used to know one another. Over the last two years, she said, the row house at 9 Johnny Court has sat vacant while the developer navigated the permitting process.

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“We really were a close-knit community,” she said.

City officials said they had little say over the project, because the construction of new units atop 9 Johnny Court would still fall under height limitations. All the developer was required to prove was that he would meet groundwater recharge requirements, officials said.

Lane N. Goldberg, a Braintree-based lawyer for the developer, Tao Cai, said all plans for the development have undergone an engineering review process.

“That’s up to the engineers,” he said. “When you submit plans, they have to be approved, and the plans will provide for expert analysis on how to conduct the construction.”

The encroachment of development on Chinatown’s row houses has spurred city officials to incorporate that pocket of the neighborhood into a new downtown planning process that will consider ways to protect the row houses. Although that section of the neighborhood was not part of the original scope of the review – which is due in the summer of 2020 – city officials said they recognized the need to preserve that part of the neighborhood’s history.

“Chinatown is one of the most important neighborhoods in the city, and we need to preserve it,” said Sheila A. Dillon, the city’s chief of housing.

Row houses on Johnny Court.
Row houses on Johnny Court.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Several Chinatown advocates pointed out that row houses in other neighborhoods — such as Roxbury and Bay Village — have their own protections, though city planning officials said those neighborhoods have separate combinations of landmark and zoning protections specific to those areas. The new review will look at protections.

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“We agree . . . that this housing represents a cultural and historic part of the neighborhood’s rich immigrant history and it should remain a place that immigrant families can call home,” said Brian Golden, head of the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

City Councilors Michael Flaherty and Ed Flynn, who attended Tuesday’s rally, said they will propose designating Chinatown as an Interim Planning Overlay District that would provide for temporary protections for the row houses.

“These houses, they’re precious, they’re unique, they’re historic, they’re a big part of the fabric of the community,” said Flaherty.

Several advocates with the Chinese Progressive Association, a neighborhood group, called for greater urgency as development continues to take hold in the neighborhood.

The growth of Tufts Medical Center in many ways split Chinatown into smaller pockets. Many of the units have been converted into short-term rentals, and developers who have speculated on the booming real estate market have raised rents and displaced residents, changing the culture of Chinatown, said association advocate Erin Chow. “Our goal isn’t just zoning, our goal is for Chinatown to remain an immigrant, working-class community, and this is one way to get there,” she said.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.