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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Lawrence Harmon

Renovations and dreams on Quincy Street

Few streets in Boston are so physically run down that they trigger an immediate reaction of hopelessness. One exception over the years has been a stretch of Dorchester’s Quincy Street between Columbia Road and Blue Hill Avenue. And now that area, too, is in the process of an urban makeover.

The centerpiece of the redevelopment of the “Quincy Corridor’’ is the former Pearl Meats factory that has sat empty for eight years. The hot dog manufacturer had been a valued local employer before opting for new quarters outside Boston. But in keeping with the building’s history, it is now slated to accommodate more than 50 food entrepreneurs who can operate their own commercial kitchens on site or rent space by the hour in a shared-use kitchen that includes convection ovens, large-capacity mixers, and pretty much anything a cook might need to turn a favorite family recipe into a wholesale food business.

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The $14.5 million redevelopment of this factory and the creation or preservation of more than 129 inexpensive homes nearby offers a lesson in how Boston has been so successful at holding off or reversing urban blight. The restored commissary building now under renovation was bought by the nonprofit Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, a group with a reputation for tackling the toughest redevelopment projects in the city. The property will be managed by CropCircle Kitchen, which demonstrated that the culinary incubator concept works at its shared-kitchen space in Jamaica Plain. With proven practitioners like these, more than a dozen financing and funding sources came forward, including the nonprofit lender Boston Community Capital and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD was sufficiently impressed with the potential for housing and new jobs along Quincy Street that it stepped up with a $20.5 million grant that rewards pragmatic approaches to revitalizing poor communities. It was one of only five such Choice Neighborhoods awards in the nation.

“It’s about organizing people and money,’’ said Jeanne DuBois, who heads Dorchester Bay. “If you have enough of both, you get things done.’’

You could argue with the fact that all of the new and restored housing will be set aside for very poor people eligible for federal Section 8 subsidies. Housing complexes that include both subsidized and market rate units have proven successful at breaking up concentrations of poverty around Boston. But it would be quibbling given the overall ambitious nature of the Quincy Corridor initiative.

A lot of cities talk a better game than they play when it comes to neighborhood revitalization. Boston isn’t one of them. The city’s neighborhood renewal philosophy was summed up best in the 2001 book, “Comeback Cities,’’ coauthored by Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan. The authors posit: “What if, at long last, older and poorer urban areas were no longer frightening and chaotic, but simply poor.’’

The neighborhood will still be poor. But it will be livable and hopeful.

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The Quincy Corridor project won’t make an overnight impact on the almost 40 percent poverty rate in the surrounding neighborhood. But that’s not necessarily the goal. The commissary and new housing units are situated along the updated Fairmount commuter rail line that creates a reliable link between more remote sections of Dorchester and downtown. Nearby schools are improving. And the violent crime rate across the city has fallen. The neighborhood will still be poor. But it will be livable and hopeful, which is more important than median incomes.

Pragmatism still leaves plenty of room for big dreams on Quincy Street. A short distance from the future commissary, Dorchester Bay has purchased an abandoned auto repair building as the site of a future digital fabrication laboratory — or so-called Fab Lab. The group wants to equip the building with user-friendly but sophisticated computer-controlled manufacturing equipment, such as laser cutters, 3-D printers, and fully equipped electronics benches. Dozens of such labs are now cropping up around the country and turning out everything from tiny robots to the components for customized housing.

How the space evolves is still unknown. But potential uses include a workforce training center, shared-use space for artists or designers, and a technology center for K-12 students.

Come spring, Dorchester Bay expects entrepreneurs to lease space at the industrial kitchen and families to settle into their new or refurbished homes. If all goes well, Quincy Street will soon be crossed off the diminishing list of Boston’s tumbledown streets.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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