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The Boston Globe

Opinion

PAUL MCMORROW

Big housing plans for smaller cities

A view of Malden's Government Center and its area.

Joanne Rathe/Globe staff

A view of Malden's Government Center and its area.

The people who built Malden City Hall did their best to imitate Boston’s more famous seat of municipal government. Malden’s charmless version of Government Center is even harder on the eyes, and the surrounding neighborhood, than Boston’s. A squat brick monolith with a leaky roof overlooking an Orange Line station, the complex succeeds in imitating Boston in just one way: It chokes the life out of everything in its path.

Malden City Hall looks headed for the slag heap, since the building is both unloved and prohibitively expensive to maintain. City officials are moving toward putting the building out to bid for redevelopment. This doesn’t sound like a development on par with, say, the Big Dig and a clean Boston Harbor opening the Seaport’s vast parking lots to development. But the downtown rebuilding projects currently underway in Boston’s formerly industrial urban satellites will do more to shape the state than the towers rising above Fan Pier. The state’s housing shortage— brought on by decades of building new homes at a fraction of the national pace — is far too acute for Boston to tackle on its own.

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Boston deserves every headline it gets. The city is the economic force that enables everything happening around it. But Massachusetts can’t just sit back, let Boston erect its shiny new apartment and condominium towers, and expect those developments to carry the state forward.

Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center has said the state needs to double or triple its rate of housing construction in order to meet coming demand. The Patrick administration believes the state needs 10,000 new apartments and condominiums per year over the next decade just to have a housing market that functions normally. Massachusetts has only hit that level of home construction a few times over the past two decades. Boston Mayor Tom Menino recently outlined a plan to add 30,000 new housing units to Boston by 2020; as big as that number sounds, it still means that 70 percent of the state’s new homes will have to come from somewhere outside Boston. Much of the remainder will have to come from places like Lowell, Quincy, and Malden.

The former industrial cities outside Boston loom large because, unlike the bulk of the state’s suburbs, the smaller cities are interested in building, and building the right way.

The suburbs eat land and promote costly sprawl without really addressing the state’s housing shortage. By contrast, Somerville, Quincy, and Worcester are aggressively pursuing dense tracts of new housing as an economic development strategy. Quincy and Worcester are pushing mega-projects that use housing to reinvigorate their downtowns; Somerville’s Assembly Square is turning an old Ford car plant into a new neighborhood of apartments, shops, and offices. Through smaller, more systematic housing efforts, Lowell and Haverhill have quietly turned their old industrial cores into thriving downtowns. In each case, transit access to Boston enabled a housing-first development strategy aimed at lifting up underutilized commercial centers.

Malden’s hulking, leaking City Hall fits squarely into the pattern other smaller post-industrial cities have cut. It sits in the middle of what was once the city’s main commercial artery. The Orange Line is on one side of the building, a historic downtown is on the other, and there’s no direct way of walking from one to the other. Downtown actually dead-ends at City Hall’s front door; not surprisingly, downtown is light on pedestrian traffic, and pockmarked by vacant storefronts.

Demand for housing near public transit is so strong that, even with a mixed bag of a downtown choking in City Hall’s shadow, Malden has roughly 550 apartments in its construction pipeline. Blowing up City Hall would free up two acres of prime transit-adjacent land for development and connect the downtown corridor to the Orange Line. If done right, trading a lifeless municipal building for dense new housing developments would activate downtown shops while opening the city’s center to further redevelopment efforts. There’s nothing exotic about this trade. It’s the same play that’s at work in Quincy and Haverhill and Lowell and Worcester. It’s just good city-building. But the state needs good city-building, and lots more of it. Leaning on Boston’s construction boom isn’t enough.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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