New mixed-income housing projects planned for Roxbury
Nonprofits, BHA see mixed income housing as a big boon
In 1972, strident local opposition and changing political winds finally put a halt to the long-planned “Inner Belt” and Southwest highways — but not before dozens of homes and businesses were razed. Scars from the aborted project remained visible for decades, particularly along Roxbury’s Melnea Cass Boulevard, which is pocked with vacant lots, a symbol of urban renewal’s excesses.
Today, as in many other neighborhoods in booming Boston, new development is closing over those old wounds, with two recent proposals promising to dramatically alter the area around the bottom of Melnea Cass near Ruggles Station.
And both have a distinctly different flavor from the usual condo-and-retail towers that seem to break ground each month.
Two nonprofits, including one founded in the 1960s to fight urban renewal, are collaborating with the Boston Housing Authority to redevelop the 1950s-era Whittier Street public housing project off Tremont Street into a large mixed-income residential development.
Meanwhile, a closely related proposal by one of the nonprofits would erect two apartment buildings, one with five stories and one with four stories, on nearby Melnea Cass Boulevard.
The twin projects are the latest entrants in a recent surge of development in the area.
Across the street, Northeastern University has built a 22-story dormitory, bringing a notable amount of youthful foot traffic to the intersection.
Meanwhile, across Whittier, a development team is proposing a giant mixed-use complex that would include a 14-story office building for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The plans submitted Monday by the Madison Park Development Corporation and Preservation of Affordable Housing are ambitious and complex, calling for a residential area spanning three properties and five buildings. Together, the projects would create 462 apartments, including in a 14-story building across Tremont Street from Northeastern University’s 22-story International Place dorm.
“We want to get rid of what was sort of a defunct physical site and replace it with a more vibrant, more contemporary community that’s more in line with where Boston is now,” said Cory Mian, vice president of real estate development at Preservation of Affordable Housing, or POAH.
The projects would require building in stages, so the city could find housing for residents of the 200 current Whittier project apartments, which would be demolished. Those residents would be first in line for the new apartments when they are completed. Construction on the first phase would start in 2016.
Both projects hinge on the BHA’s winning a highly competitive $30 million federal grant. The BHA will learn whether it has won the grant, from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, this fall.
Without the grant, the projects would go back to the drawing boards. But the developers are bullish about their chances, noting that POAH recently won a similar grant for a project in Chicago. And the grant itself is modeled after Corcoran Jennison’s successful revitalization of Dorchester’s Columbia Point development, once one of the city’s most notorious slums.
The developers stressed that their plan goes well beyond simply demolishing and constructing buildings. About $20 million of the federal grant would offset construction costs, and the rest would go toward a job-training center and a community center, plus infrastructure improvements that would better integrate the development with the surrounding neighborhood.
Still, they acknowledged that any talk of sweeping change by a government agency in this neighborhood stirs up bad memories for longtime residents. That necessitated a long community planning process that preceded the filing of preliminary plans Monday with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
“We’re grappling with a lot of tensions here,” Mian said. “We made a commitment to ensuring people who want to live there can continue to live there, but we also felt pressure from residents to create a market by giving people with different incomes an opportunity to live there.”
Proponents say the Whittier project is emblematic of the “new” BHA, which has called on private owners and management companies to redevelop and improve crumbling housing projects such as Orchard Gardens and Mission Main.
The authority now favors mixed-income developments, a big change from the days when publicly subsidized housing effectively segregated low-income families.
“Private ownership and management is generally more responsive to residents’ needs, and much better at accomplishing mixed-income housing,” said Russell Tanner, the director of real estate at Madison Park Development Corporation, which is proposing the two Melnea Cass apartment buildings and working with POAH on the Whittier development. “One of the big goals here is to de-concentrate the extremely low-income families.”
This is not the first attempt to spur improvements in the Tremont and Melnea Cass area. But start-and-stop redevelopment efforts, including one in the 1990s that dubbed the neighborhood “Crosstown,” never quite took hold. Next door, the Tremont Crossing project has suffered through fits and starts, and Governor Charlie Baker is questioning if the state can afford to move MassDOT to the Roxbury site.