The drawn-out effort to remake Charlestown’s huge Bunker Hill public housing complex has a new developer with an idea to help pay for it: city tax breaks.
Developers and the Boston Housing Authority are devising a $1.25 billion plan for the Charlestown project, which would rebuild more than 1,100 aging apartments for low-income renters and add at least that many more market-rate apartments and condos on a 28-acre site along the Mystic River. A new development company — veteran Boston builders Leggat McCall — has joined lead developer Corcoran Jennison on the project. They and the BHA hope to refile formal plans early next year, saying it’s long past time to replace the crumbling complex, which is approaching its 80th birthday.
“The status quo at Bunker Hill is not acceptable,” BHA Administrator Bill McGonagle said at a meeting on the project in Charlestown on Thursday. “My hope is we can all take the next steps in this.”
The project’s backers say it’s a relatively straightforward way to revive aging public housing at a time when there’s little public money to do so. Opening the site to private, market-rate development, McGonagle said, should generate enough cash to pay for replacing 1,100 apartments that house some of Boston’s poorest residents, with the result being a truly mixed-income neighborhood.
But progress has been delayed for nearly three years while developers, the BHA, and the neighborhood wrestle with the question of how much market-rate housing to add. Too little, and there won’t be enough money to fund the public housing. Too much, some say, would risk overwhelming Charlestown with density and traffic.
Development firms Corcoran Jennison and SunCal first won rights to build on the site with a plan that called for 3,200 housing units and buildings as tall as 20 stories near the Tobin Bridge. Neighbors pushed back, and the project eventually stalled. Earlier this year, SunCal left the project, and Leggat McCall joined it. Since then, the developers have been meeting with residents and refining the plan.
Thursday night, they shared their current thinking: 2,700 units — 500 fewer than before — with no buildings taller than 10 stories. Work would be done in seven or eight phases, to minimize relocation of current residents. Construction could start in 2021, but not before a series of community meetings and a city review to hash out details.
“This is not being presented as a fait accompli,” Leggat president Eric Sheffels said. “This is a starting point.”
One detail that needs work: financing. With fewer market-rate units than previously envisioned, the billion-dollar project will probably need some kind of subsidy for the affordable housing component. McGonagle said the city is exploring a way to dedicate a portion of new tax revenue from the complex back into funding it, instead of sharing it with the city’s general budget. Known as District Improvement Financing, the tool is typically used for commercial development, not housing.
“We’d be redeveloping housing that generates zero tax revenue right now,” he said. “It’s a natural extension of our original goal of harnessing the value of the site to pay for improvements.”
Dozens of Charlestown residents — including those from the public housing complex and the surrounding neighborhood — attended the meeting Thursday. Several spoke in favor of the project, while others said they are reserving judgment until more details are made known.
Tiara Murphy of the Charlestown Residents Alliance, a tenant group at the Bunker Hill complex, said her organization plans to work closely with developers to ensure current residents are offered protections. City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who hosted the meeting, said it’s essential that all Charlestown residents have a voice in the project but also that it keep moving forward.
“There is a sense of urgency here,” Edwards said.
Sheffels agreed that expediting the work is important, but so is recognizing that it’s a huge and complicated project that will reshape part of Charlestown for decades.
“This is going to last for 100 years,” he said. “It has to be done right.”