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    Chelsea experiencing a building revival

    After decades of struggle, the city is capitalizing on its proximity to Boston as apartments, offices, stores, and restaurants pop up

    A park is under construction at 201 Marginal St. in Chelsea, a city with a population of about 35,080 and a land area of 1.8 square miles.
    A park is under construction at 201 Marginal St. in Chelsea, a city with a population of about 35,080 and a land area of 1.8 square miles.

    The abandoned Ford pickup sat on a prominent commercial lot in Chelsea for so long that a mature pine tree was growing through its roof. For decades, the tree was about the only thing rising in this struggling industrial city, a place that seemed perpetually stuck in the shadows of the Tobin Bridge and unable to attract significant private investment.

    But a starkly different mood is starting to prevail in Chelsea. The tree and the pickup truck are gone, replaced by a Wyndham Hotel. Next door is a new Marriott Residence Inn, and the FBI will soon start construction across the street on a 250,000-square-foot local headquarters. Citywide, hundreds of new residences have been built in recent years, and thousands more are planned.

    “Not only are we hungry for development here, but the City Council has become addicted to it,” said City Manager Jay Ash. “As a result, we’ve been able to go out to the marketplace and attract quality developers.”


    The city is benefiting from public investment in transportation and new open space, as well as from an influx of young professionals and other newcomers who are moving into loft-style apartments and frequenting new ethnic restaurants, arts festivals, and retail stores. Last year, Chelsea welcomed its first Starbucks.

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    “What we’re selling in Chelsea is proximity to Boston at a reduced cost,” said Ash, noting that the city now has more than 750,000 square feet of office space along the formerly industrial Everett Avenue.

    One of the most prominent examples of the changes is a 230-unit apartment development under construction along Route 1. The five-story complex, called One North of Boston, will have a yoga studio, outdoor pool and fire pit, full-service dog day care, and a cavernous two-story lobby with custom light fixtures and a sleek fireplace.

    “We wanted to make some loud statements with this project,” said Damian Szary, a principal of the joint-venture development group Gate Residential and Transdel Corp.

    Gate Residential recently completed construction of a similar development, Maxwell’s Green in Somerville. Its principals see Chelsea as another magnet for young people who want to live in the city, but can’t afford $3,000-a-month rents to be downtown.


    “This location is just too close to Boston for them to pass up,” said Szary, who added that apartments will rent for roughly half of downtown Boston prices. “We’re one mile as the bird flies from Boston, one commuter rail stop from North Station, and this project has so many features that will make it attractive.”

    Chelsea has struggled to attract development for decades, due to a toxic mix of financial mismanagement, crime, and blight that left it teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in the early 1990s. It is also saddled with decaying industrial properties that are costly to clean up and redevelop as housing or attractive commercial space.

    To be sure, Chelsea is still battling to escape its troubled reputation. But its finances have recovered — the city’s bond rating was recently upgraded by Standard & Poor’s — and it is attracting millions of dollars’ worth of state and federal investment in transportation upgrades and other improvements.

    On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency began a $3.1 million cleanup of a contaminated site off Route 1 that will become home to a Holiday Inn.

    The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is contributing land to support the redevelopment project and has begun consideration of a much bigger project: extending the Silver Line bus service to Chelsea. The Silver Line would speed the commute into Boston and open up new development opportunities.


    Ash, the city manager, said officials are pushing to have the Mystic Mall redeveloped into a large-scale housing, office, and retail complex.

    “The potential exists for the Mystic Mall to turn into 1,000 units or more of residential, along with potential for back-office” businesses supporting Boston’s Seaport District, which is already served by the Silver Line.

    Since 2005, that dynamic has also spurred construction of more than 1,200 homes in the city, mostly loft-style apartments and condominiums suitable for small families or young professionals.

    Among the new developments is the so-called Box District, an area of former warehouses. State and city investments spawned construction of several apartment buildings.

    Fitted with classic street lamps and a mix of brick buildings and more modern homes, the neighborhood is a window into the city’s redevelopment potential. It is a short walk from the Broadway commercial district and commuter rail stop and includes a new playground and other open spaces. A developer recently started construction of dozens of additional residences at 44 Gerrish Ave.

    The developers of the nearby One North of Boston project are also planning a second phase that would include 242 housing units, more than doubling the size of the complex along Route 1.

    “I used to have to go knock on doors to get developers to come here,” Ash said. “I’m getting calls from developers every day because of the success of the residential development. We’re a community a lot of people will have to rediscover again before they believe it’s changing, but it’s developments like these that are making that happen.”

    Casey Ross can be reached at