This weekend, community activists, politicians, and developers will converge on Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain. They will celebrate the imminent emergence of structural steel in the square. The stated reason for this weekend’s party is construction of a 103-unit apartment building. But the celebration is really about the triumph over urban renewal.
For more than 50 years, outdated transportation policy shaped the neighborhoods around Jackson Square. When that steel rises above 225 Centre Street, Jackson Square will finally begin being shaped by something other than a highway. It will be shaped by community development. It will finally get back to being a real place.
Jackson Square was a legitimate square for the first half of the 1900s, with shops and factories standing alongside working-class housing. That ended when city and state transportation planners began pushing plans to run an elevated highway, the Southwest Expressway, through the neighborhood.
Today, the square is more of an intersection than a square. City squares are clusters of buildings and hubs of activity; Jackson Square is the name of an Orange Line station, and also a barren spot where seven lanes of traffic collide with another five.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Boston area was littered with highway construction plans — genuine, if failed, attempts to rescue the city from decades of economic stagnation and declining population. Roxbury and Jamaica Plain bore the brunt of land clearance efforts. Thousands of homes and businesses were razed. Blight radiated from the planned highway routes. Scars in the landscape still run from the Southeast Expressway to Ruggles, and then down to Forest Hills.
Jamaica Plain and Roxbury once met in Jackson Square; now, they’re separated by a vacant, impassable no-mans land. Highway clearance imposed an architecture that continues to promote economic disinvestment.
The new apartment building at the corner of Centre and Columbus — 225 Centre Street — is the first phase of a decade-long, $250 million effort to rebuild Jackson Square. The whole effort will re-knit Jamaica Plain to Roxbury.
A straight line runs from the early anti-highway activism in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, through the construction of the Orange Line, and to the contemporary redevelopment of Jackson Square. At all three stages of the 50-year effort, local activists formed broad coalitions, engaged in proactive planning, and knew that saying no wasn’t good enough. The activists won because they didn’t just oppose poor land use — they articulated an alternative vision.
Early on, they demanded the same sort of highway more powerful Boston neighborhoods were getting — subsurface, not elevated. That morphed into calls to mothball the highway altogether, in favor of mass transit in the form of the Orange Line, and public open space that became Southwest Corridor Park.
Neighborhood activists have been guiding the current redevelopment effort for more than a decade — ever since Kmart tried building on a vacant lot in Jackson. The community rallied together, opposed the big-box development, and then sketched out exactly what it wanted built instead. The neighborhoods drew up plans for their own redevelopment, and then put the concept out to bid. Three non-profit builders — the Community Builders, Urban Edge, and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation — answered the bell. But these builders are just vessels carrying a larger, community-directed vision.
Looking back at the Kmart battle, Bart Mitchell, CEO of The Community Builders, says, “It would have been a shame, to have not taken advantage of this part of the city.” Instead of settling for any building, the neighborhood held out for transformative development. And now, 50 years since the bulldozers began rolling in, and 25 years after the Orange Line opened, Jackson Square’s moment has arrived.
Mitchell’s development at 225 Centre will mix retail and community uses with subsidized and market-rate housing. It will embody the diversity of the neighborhoods around it, and, he hopes, set a marker for the redevelopment work to follow. “I’m not necessarily an advocate for things going slowly,” Mitchell says, “but I like when they get done right.”
Paul M. McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.