After almost four years of planning, city review is about to begin on an ambitious redevelopment of South Boston’s huge Mary Ellen McCormack public housing complex.
WinnCompanies, a developer of affordable housing, on Monday filed notice with the Boston Planning & Development Agency of a 1.5 million-square-foot overhaul of the complex, which sits on 30 acres in the southern part of South Boston, between Andrew Square and Joe Moakley Park.
Under the plan, the World War II vintage complex — where James “Whitey” Bulger, among many others, grew up — would be rebuilt over a decade or more as a mixed-income neighborhood with roughly 2½ times as many apartments and better connections — both physical and social — to the surrounding neighborhoods, which have changed dramatically in recent years.
“Rebuilding it in this way gives us the chance to really reknit the housing into the broader neighborhood,” said the Boston Housing Authority’s administrator, Kate Bennett. “We can bring new and attractive homes, and accomplish a lot of other things.”
The project is similar in concept to other remakes of large public housing complexes, such as Mildred Hailey in Jamaica Plain and Bunker Hill in Charlestown, where the Housing Authority has opened up the sites to market-rate housing as a way to finance the reconstruction of deeply discounted apartments now nearly 80 years old.
Such renovation work is complex. Bunker Hill, in particular, required years of negotiations between developers, tenants, and the neighborhood over issues such as transportation and the height and density required to build enough market-rate apartments to pay for the 1,100 public housing units. The project’s first phase won BPDA approval in January, and a lead investor signed on last month.
WinnCompanies, awarded rights to redevelop the McCormack site in 2017, has been talking with residents of the complex and of the Andrew Square area about what and how to build ever since. Chief executive Gilbert Winn said he hopes those conversations make the public conversation over the site that’s about to kick off go more smoothly.
“We understand there’s going to be a robust community process going forward,” he said. “But it has been clear across all our community meetings that people understand the urgency and need to redevelop this site. We’re starting with that understanding.”
Monday’s filing, in fact, represents only the project’s first phase, expected to cost about $800 million, including a $50 million commitment from the city. Winn will focus initially on 18 acres on the northern part of the 31-acre complex, building eight new residential buildings, ranging from five to 19 stories tall, that include 1,370 apartments — 570 set at current deeply affordable public housing rents, the rest at middle-income or market-rate levels.
Each building will include a mix of incomes, and all 1,016 units at the McCormack today will eventually be replaced — though nearly half will come in the second phase, which will be designed while the first one is underway. Phasing it that way, Bennett said, will minimize the disruption for existing residents, many of whom will simply be able to move into new buildings as they go up, rather than moving away for years while the complex is being renovated.
The project has other goals, as well.
Winn is partnering with 30 social service and nonprofit agencies on a Community of Opportunity Center, meant to connect residents with needed services ranging from early childhood education to addiction counseling to job training. That project will launch “when funding becomes available,” Winn said. It’s also being designed to better connect Old Colony Avenue, on the east side of the complex, with Dorchester Avenue on the west, and will add both bike lanes and new streets that open up the hemmed-in project to its surrounding neighborhoods. It also will tie in with a planned redevelopment of Moakley Park across the street, and aims to buffer neighborhood defenses against sea level rise.
The details of all that will be hashed out as the project goes through BPDA review, which will begin with the filing of more detailed plans in a few weeks, Winn said. It has the support of residents groups, which have been actively involved in the discussions for several years.
“We couldn’t be more excited to have this project finally commence the approval process,” said Carol Sullivan, executive director of the Mary Ellen McCormack Task Force. “There is a real urgency to redeveloping this site and creating a much better and long-lasting quality of life here for the residents.”