The vacant lot at the corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Fabyan Street in Mattapan has been an eyesore for 30 years, a magnet for wind-blown trash and empty liquor bottles. Dariela Villón-Maga, who lives only a few blocks away, has passed by the lot practically every week of her life, daydreaming of what could be.
New Options could be new affordable homes, perhaps, for the residents who have been pushed out of the neighborhood by soaring rents; commercial space for a locally owned business, one that focuses on wellness; or a spot for local artists to hang their work, bringing new life to the lot and the neighborhood.
“Something different,” said Villón-Maga, who started out in the affordable-housing industry and recently formed her own development firm, DVM Consulting, to propose such a project for the vacant lot by Fabyan Street.
She no longer has to dream about it.
Boston officials recently named Villón-Maga, the daughter of immigrant parents from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the first local developer from the Blue Hill Avenue community to have the chance to carry out a vision for the area she calls home: a $15.7 million project to redevelop the Fabyan Street site, a similar one across the street, and a third project a block away.
Villón-Maga’s project — her first solo venture — is part of a broader city initiative called the Blue Hill Ave. Action Plan, which invites local developers to propose community-focused ways to redevelop 30 small vacant parcels that line Blue Hill Avenue, one of Boston’s most historic but neglected corridors.
Many of the lots have sat vacant since the 1980s, seized by the city for tax liens. They’re of little interest to big-time developers, who may not share the same community-oriented focus the city wants. And, historically, small-scale developers have struggled to cut through bureaucratic requirements to bid for the properties.
Meanwhile, the lots have sat vacant, blights that mar the community.
“Mattapan and the lower Blue Hill Avenue deserve this revitalization,” Villón-Maga said.
The move to combine the 30 parcels under one initiative is part of a broader effort by city officials to reinvest in the spine of the city that, in its heyday, was a vibrant shopping destination. First settled by Boston’s Jewish communities and, by the 1940s and 1950s, its immigrant and Black communities, the four-mile strip cuts from Mattapan Square through Dorchester, into Grove Hall, and toward Nubian Square in Roxbury.
Over the last half century, the corridor has stood as a symbol of neglect and disenfranchisement. Government entities scrapped spending on public programs. Banks refused loans for local residents and merchants. City officials vowed time and again to reinvest in the area; over the decades those efforts invariably stalled.
Now, a new effort to revitalize the area is underway, with the redevelopment of vacant parcels along the entire strip. City officials have also embarked on a new Transportation Action Plan to increase foot traffic in the area, hoping to encourage residents to stop and support local businesses. Officials continue to meet with community members to lay out a broader transportation plan for the strip.
“For some time, Blue Hill Avenue has been a place where people are just on their way, and we’re hoping all of these changes make Blue Hill a sense of place and destination,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing.
The city has already partnered in recent years with larger developers on projects along the avenue including The Clarion, a mixed-use development that opened last year in Grove Hall and includes 37 rental housing units, most of them with income restrictions designed to make them affordable to lower-income residents, as well as commercial space.
Dillon said the 30-parcel Blue Hill Ave. Action Plan focuses on partnerships with local developers who share a vision for the community; ideally all the involved developers would be from the neighborhood.
The city conducted a survey of residents and business owners in multiple strips along the corridor to help shape a vision of what the developments could look like, Dillon said.
Villón-Maga’s proposal was approved under the first stage of the initiative, which covers the area just north of Mattapan Square. Greater Boston Habitat for Humanity, which was also selected in the first stage of the initiative, is slated to develop three sites in that area with a similar combination of housing and commercial space. The city is set in the coming weeks to release a request for proposals for 18 other parcels closer to Grove Hall and the Moreland Street Historic District, all under a vision shaped by the resident surveys.
“This all gives you a sense of what works for the folks who are there and don’t want to leave,” Dillon said.
Former city councilor Andrea Campbell, when she was on the Council, pushed for the effort to “activate” the vacant lots, as she put it last year. Her vision was to reach out to local developers who may not have had the technical know-how to bid on city land, but wanted to invest in their community.
“No one knows [better] what they want in the community than the residents themselves,” said Campbell, who is currently running for state attorney general.
Fatima Ali-Salaam, chairwoman of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, who was involved in reviewing proposals, said that the process was designed to specifically have community involvement, with a vision of what the community wants — right up until construction begins. She noted, for instance, that Villón-Maga responded to community requests to offer more of the housing units for sale, rather than rentals, creating more homeownership and wealth-building opportunities for residents who already live in Mattapan.
At a community meeting Thursday that allowed developers to outline their proposals, residents peppered Villón-Maga with questions about the design of her properties, and how much landscaping they will include. Lighting in the backyard? Has she reached out to her abutting neighbors?
“It’s not just about this one project, it’s about this project fitting into a neighborhood, and benefiting the neighborhood, and the people there — long term,” Ali-Salaam said. “
Based on community feedback, Villón-Maga’s proposal includes two structures on separate sites with a total of 18 housing units for sale, though the units will have deed restrictions limiting them to buyers who meet certain income restrictions. Commercial space in each of the buildings will also be sold at below-market rates. A third structure includes 12 rental units that will be made available to people who earn less than the area median income, and the building will offer co-working commercial space for local artists to market their work.
As she mused about filling those vacant lots near her house, Villón-Maga, 35, said she knew that residents would want something different, beyond the fast-food shops and liquor stores that already dot Blue Hill Avenue.
“I don’t want to do something folks don’t want, isn’t familiar to them, or isn’t inviting,” she said. “I see this as a way to set the precedent, on how you can revitalize the area with the community behind you. … I am the community.”