CHELSEA — At a contaminated, overgrown industrial site where the Mill and Chelsea creeks meet, something is taking shape that is almost too spectacular to hope for. Almost.
“My first memory of the creek is coming down here and fishing for hours with my father and brother,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, who lived nearby as a kid, in the house her great-grandparents settled in when they first came from Italy. “We caught nothing.”
She was standing at the water’s edge at her childhood stamping grounds — a 17-acre property that was once the Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Company — amid the buddleia, goldenrod, and chicory that have claimed the site over the last decade. Bounded by the two creeks and the MBTA commuter rail, the property faces Revere, Orient Heights, and the Boston skyline.
Bongiovanni wants it.
She and her community partners are racing to put together a bid for this property, which will be auctioned on Friday. They want to claim it for Chelsea, a community that has been battered for decades by a state that used its neighborhoods as dumping grounds, and whose residents have been pounded by all of our failures: poverty, overcrowding, and poor health, including the pandemic that swept more ferociously through here than just about anywhere in the country.
The kid who dropped her line in these waters never went far. Bongiovanni has spent her career as a community and environmental advocate in Chelsea, and heads GreenRoots, the environmental justice group that punches way above its weight in a city that, out of necessity, has a habit of producing spectacular champions for working people. Now, in addition to fighting for the struggling immigrants and others who have called the city home for generations, they’re trying to hold back the market forces that would squeeze those residents out.
The Forbes site has all kinds of problems. The ground is loaded with ink, heavy metals, and petroleum products, all of which must be cleaned up. A chunk of the site is vulnerable to sea level rise, and the flooding that will come with it, so it can’t be built upon. There is only one way into the property, over a bridge that must be entirely rebuilt.
Two developers have tried to remake the place over the last 20 years. One visionary company started to build a sustainable community where the housing would be largely off-the-grid, but a recession derailed the project. Its first, incomplete, building is now a mess of graffiti and smashed glass.
A few years ago, a China-based developer bought the property for $11.5 million and proposed a massive development there with mostly market-rate housing and commercial space. GreenRoots was among the groups pushing for the project to be scaled back and for the site to be more accessible to the community. After the pandemic hit, that developer, too, hit trouble, and the property was foreclosed upon.
Bongiovanni, GreenRoots, and other environmental justice groups have been eyeing the property for a year, certain they can succeed where others have failed. They want to build affordable housing, and office and community use spaces, including a new headquarters for GreenRoots. They want to include accessible open space, so that everybody can enjoy the waterfront. And they want to create a nature preserve that would restore the salt marsh and make the site more resilient as seas rise.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if the community had 17 acres in their control, to determine how they use it, and to be able to really say, ‘This is our neighborhood, this is our city,’” Bongiovanni said.
The project would transform this part of Chelsea, and the lives of many of its residents, squeezed into homes too small to hold them, or being squeezed out of the city as others see its potential and price them out.
“This community that for such a long time has served waves of immigrants is really at risk right now,” said Rafael Mares, executive director of The Neighborhood Developers, which builds affordable housing in Chelsea, Revere, and Everett, and is partnering with GreenRoots to win the site. “What happens at that Forbes site matters. Is it going to be used for people currently in Chelsea, or for people from outside who are wealthier and whiter than Chelsea is?”
The Mass Audubon Society and the Mystic River Watershed Association are also on board, providing analysis and advice. City and state environmental officials are intrigued, and know how rare such an opportunity is.
“You just don’t get a 17-acre canvas ... to create a model for climate resiliency for the Commonwealth,” said David O’Neill, Mass Audubon’s president.
On Sept. 16, a plan that was coming together slowly and methodically suddenly became extremely urgent: Bongiovanni learned the auction date had been set, and she and her partners are now racing to raise the millions it will take to make a credible bid for the land. They have been working around the clock to put together donors and financing for a deal that must close in just over a month.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “This is the craziest thing I have ever done, but is it worth it? Absolutely. ... If we don’t give it a go every minute of every day for two weeks, then why does GreenRoots exist?”
This is about winning climate justice and community power in a city that, for all of its disadvantages, has been giving master classes in resilience and self-advocacy for years.
What these groups are proposing is the best possible use for this site. More importantly, it is the most just vision for this place.
On Friday morning, that vision will go up against those of developers whose plans for housing may put these 17 acres beyond the reach of the community for good.
If there is any justice in this world, Chelsea will prevail.