Joseph E. Corcoran looked no further than his own childhood to find inspiration for his pioneering vision for building mixed-income housing.
He had grown up in Dorchester’s Upham’s Corner, where during the Great Depression the families of college professors lived side-by-side with households led by police officers, firefighters, laborers, and, inevitably, the unemployed.
“We lived in a triple-decker,” he once said, “and I found out later that we were almost evicted because my parents had a hard time paying the rent, but we never had an inkling we were poor.”
Mr. Corcoran, who was chairman of Corcoran Jennison Companies, a firm whose successes include turning Boston’s floundering Columbia Point housing projects into the Harbor Point mixed-income development, died at home Wednesday of congestive heart failure. He was 84 and lived in Milton.
What Mr. Corcoran and his firm accomplished revitalizing Columbia Point “was an incredible achievement,” said Michael S. Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts when Harbor Point was built.
“We knew it could be done, but you need people like Joe,” Dukakis added. “He was a guy who was willing to take risks, willing to go out there and be a pioneer, and he did it. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened. As far as I’m concerned, he was the star of this.”
Corcoran Jennison, which was called Corcoran, Mullins, Jennison during the 1980s when Harbor Point was developed, was launched in the early 1970s. Since then, according to its website, the firm has developed billions in properties in Massachusetts and across the country, with projects ranging from mixed-income housing to hotels, resorts, and health facilities.
Along with Harbor Point, the firm’s numerous developments include turning the America Park housing project in Lynn into the King’s Lynne apartments. The company also developed the Queen Anne’s Gate apartments in Weymouth, the Ocean Edge resort in Brewster.
Among Mr. Corcoran’s philanthropic endeavors was establishing the Joseph E. Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action at Boston College, his alma mater, where he also had served on the Board of Trustees.
“Joe Corcoran came from a faith-filled Irish immigrant family in Dorchester from which he learned lessons he applied all of his life about responding to those in need, whether in regard to education, housing, or improving urban neighborhoods,” the Rev. William P. Leahy, president of Boston College, said in a statement. “Boston College benefited immensely from his wisdom, generosity, commitment, and faith.”
Mr. Corcoran “spent his life serving others, and was always working to improve the lives of those who were less fortunate while taking care of his community,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement.
“He was a good man with a kind heart, who excelled in his career and touched the lives of so many people through his work to lift up low- and middle-income residents with good, safe housing,” Walsh added.
Coaxing projects to fruition — particularly mixed-income housing that encouraged families of different backgrounds to share the same streets — often meant sitting through meetings as government officials, financial backers, and a neighborhood’s previous residents sought to achieve individual goals.
“Joe was a listener more than he was a talker,” said Jack Connors, a friend who also had served on BC’s Board of Trustees, and was a founder of the Boston advertising firm Hill Holliday. “Joe took it all in and decided whether someone was a faker, or if someone wanted to be a contributor.”
And in this current moment of history when racial divisions are in the forefront, friends and business associates will remember that Mr. Corcoran “was totally color-blind,” Connors added.
The mere concept of mixed-income housing seemed revolutionary when Mr. Corcoran decided, a half-century ago, that it would be a focus of his work.
“Most people thought that you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t get market-rate people into a development if they knew there were low-income families there,” he said in an interview for a video posted by The Boston Foundation. “I knew it would work because I lived it growing up.”
Born in 1936, Joseph Edward Corcoran was the youngest of eight siblings. His parents, both immigrants from County Roscommon in Ireland, were John Corcoran, a laborer at St. Margaret’s Hospital, and Mary Merrigan, who raised the children.
Mr. Corcoran so loved his Upham’s Corner childhood that he would later tell his family that at the end of the school day at Boston College High, as he watched students head for trains home to the suburbs, “he felt sorry for them that they didn’t get to live in Dorchester, because it was so much fun,” said his daughter Suzanne Corcoran Early of Alexandria, Va.
“My mother wanted me to be a priest,” he said in an interview for the Boston Irish Tourism Association. “But I like to think my vocation is really improving other people’s lives. That’s why I went into the housing business initially — I wanted to see if I could improve the way poor people lived.”
He graduated from Boston College High School and served in the Army. Returning home, he used the GI Bill to attend Boston College, from which he graduated in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Initially, Mr. Corcoran worked with his brothers in real estate and development, but “I knew there was something missing here,” he said in The Boston Foundation video. “I wanted to build mixed-income housing, which I had been thinking about all my life.”
In 1959, Mr. Corcoran married Rosemarie Gildea, who also was a child of Irish immigrants, and whom he had met through friends when they both were at Malibu Beach in Dorchester.
“She waited for him to get out of the service, and waited for him to get out of Boston College, and they got married,” Suzanne said.
The couple raised seven children, first in Dorchester and then in Milton. The family also had a weekend and summer place in Brewster, in one of Mr. Corcoran’s developments. Mrs. Corcoran died in 2014.
Gregarious and fun-loving with family and friends, Mr. Corcoran “was the best dad,” Suzanne said.
As the family grew to include daughters- and sons-in-law and 16 grandchildren, “he had a personal connection with each and every one of us,” said his granddaughter Rose of Boston.
In addition to his daughter, his granddaughter, and his grandchildren, Mr. Corcoran leaves four sons, Joseph J. and Michael, both of Milton, Sean of Los Angeles, and Patrick of Arlington; two other daughters, Patricia Chapple of Milton and Kathryn Dean of Quincy; a sister, Frances Richer of Milton; and a great-grandchild.
The family will hold a private service and will announce a public memorial gathering in the future.
Mr. Corcoran’s philanthropic endeavors and civic involvement included his work on behalf of Boston College and being one of the early supporters of what was then called The American Ireland Fund,
He was known for “his consistent decency. He devoted much of his life to making things better for the folks who weren’t as fortunate as he was,” Connors said.
And for Mr. Corcoran, “family and friends were by far were the most important things in his life,” Rose said.
The entire family, including the 16 grandchildren, who are very close, used to gather at his Brewster residence.
Rose asked her grandfather once what he was most proud of in his life, “and he said, ‘First and foremost, my greatest accomplishment is you kids, and watching you get a kick out of each other. Watching you together is my greatest joy.’ ”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.