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Shirley Leung

To solve housing woes, Mass. must think big

Everyone talks about the need for more housing with the state setting an ambitious goal of creating 10,000 apartments and condos a year. But what we don’t spend enough time on is talking about what that might look like.

So I asked Greg Bialecki, the outgoing state housing and economic development secretary, to give it to me straight. How much development are we talking about here?

Simply put, Bialecki said, to achieve the state’s goal, Greater Boston will need about a dozen projects the size of Somerville’s Assembly Row, a $1.5 billion mixed-used development that will include about 1,800 apartments. “I don’t think it would be too much,” said Bialecki matter-of-factly.

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That should get the NIMBYs going. But here’s why we need to change our ways.

Housing is perhaps the biggest piece of unfinished business of Governor Deval Patrick, and for that matter, his predecessors. It will also be one of the greatest challenges facing Governor-elect Charlie Baker and probably his successors.

We can no longer just approve 50 units or even a few hundred units at a time, and think that’s enough to keep young bright minds from moving to Texas or North Carolina because they can’t afford to live here anymore. We need to get comfortable with the idea of large-scale projects stocked with apartments and condos to meet demand.

In other words, it can’t just be about single-family subdivisions in the suburbs. So how many new Assembly Row-size projects are currently being proposed? Nada.

Perhaps that is even more frightening. Bialecki, who is a real estate lawyer by training, explains that we haven’t seen proposals for mammoth projects that create new neighborhoods where people can live, work, and play because many developers are still finishing plans that got delayed by the Great Recession.

With the real estate market roaring back, Bialecki said, we need to think big again.

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“This is a great time for Boston and Greater Boston to start talking about where is the next generation of these exciting new projects,” he said.

Besides Assembly Row in Somerville, only a handful of other developments will generate thousands of housing units — NorthPoint in Cambridge and SouthField in Weymouth. You could count the South Boston Waterfront as another hot spot when you total up all the various housing plans there.

Building big can be scary in Massachusetts, but that’s because people think development might happen next door, Bialecki said. What he’s talking about is finding swaths of underused land, preferably near transit, and creating new neighborhoods out of them.

“Instead of scary, it can be exciting,” Bialecki said.

The kind of developers we want to attract like opportunities for a long-term build out. They want the confidence that if they sink millions of dollars into roads, sewers, water systems, and utilities, they can get the permits to put up hundreds of apartments and condos over time.

That’s because they don’t make money on the first or second buildings, but they do on the next ones.

Even in Boston, meeting housing goals set by Mayor Marty Walsh means going big, development-wise. In order to keep up with a growing population, the city is calling for 53,000 units of new housing by 2030.

Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing chief, said she feels good about the pace of development with about 23,000 units underway.

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She acknowledged that Boston, too, will need to attract substantial proposals — not quite as big as Assembly Row — to get to its overall goal.

It will be a delicate balance in congested urban areas, but it can be done. Dillon points to the new Ink Block project on the site of the old Boston Herald building, where there will be hundreds of new apartments and condos on the edge of the South End.

“We want to build new neighborhoods and be mindful of the existing surrounding communities,” said Dillon.

Jay Ash, the state’s next economic secretary under Baker, knows all too well the need for more housing. Ash has been the city manager of Chelsea, which has added about 1,200 units or about 10 percent to its housing stock. It will need more.

Ash tells me he can see Chelsea building another 2,000 units as part of the redevelopment of the Mystic Mall, which in 2017 will become a transit mecca with Silver Line and commuter rail connections. He sees dense development as critical to meeting the state’s housing needs — but also diversity in the form of micro apartments to keep housing affordable.

“I definitely see a housing as an important part of what we will do going forward,” said Ash.

We may be changing administrations on Beacon Hill, but creating a lot more housing is one priority that should stay the same.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.

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