Land is hard to come by in Boston, and as the city seeks to dig out of a housing crisis that is deepening by the day, planners are on the hunt for new ways to find space for apartments. Their latest target? Libraries.
The Mayor’s Office of Housing this week asked for redevelopment proposals for the Boston Public Library’s West End branch, on Cambridge Street near Mass. General Hospital, a site they hope to see transformed into a mixed-use development that combines a new library on the ground floor with desperately needed affordable housing units on top.
It’s one of three such BPL sites set to add housing in the coming years, a concept that has gained popularity in cities such as New York and Chicago as they seek to replicate other mixed-use models such as building housing at shopping malls.
“It’s a natural fit, affordable housing and libraries,” said Joe Backer, a senior development officer in the Mayor’s Office of Housing who has led the West End planning effort. “New families having a chance to live in the West End neighborhood, at affordable rents... above their local library. It’s an idea that has grabbed a lot of attention.”
The exact vision for the West End site is so far vague, but a community input process that began in 2020 has established some parameters. A finished development could range anywhere from 5 to 10 stories tall, with a 17,500-square-foot library on the first floor or two, and subsidized apartments at varying levels of affordability, according to planning documents.
“This vision puts an emphasis on creating high-quality, affordable housing that will serve a variety of households ... across multiple income tiers,” the RFP reads.
Residents of the area have said that they’d prefer to see larger apartments that could serve families or seniors, and that the building not overshadow key pieces of the surrounding neighborhood, like the historic Otis House next door.
David Leonard, president of the BPL, said he’s been pushing branches to consider housing in their renovation processes in recent years after realizing the severity of the housing crisis, and that the benefits of a mixed-use model could work for libraries as well.
“An essential function of modern libraries is to be a gathering space for residents of the neighborhoods we’re in,” said Leonard. “By building housing and libraries together, we’re dramatically improving the overall benefit that we’re having on the community.”
The model is already catching on. The Asian Community Development Corporation last August proposed a residential building in Chinatown that would include 66 apartments and 44 condominiums with a new BPL branch on the ground floor, and proposals are being considered for a new branch in Upham’s Corner that will include housing as well.
But, as with seemingly any new push for housing, the effort has had its roadblocks.
City officials were initially considering apartments at two existing branches in Fields Corner and Egleston Square, but complaints from residents and the challenges of building on top of aging library structures killed those plans. And the West End project will require a zoning variance to exceed the parcels’ 65-foot height limit.
Putting together apartments and libraries is complex, said Backer, because both require intricate design processes, and the financing of housing projects can be tricky. Under the right circumstances, though, “they can work really well together,” he said.
“Having multiple uses on a site is really nothing out of the ordinary,” said Backer. “It’s about finding effective ways to do it. And if we can leverage land that the city already owns to build something that works for the community on several levels, that’s great, because land is often our scarcest resource.”