The building boom that has transformed Boston over the last few years has reached nearly every corner of the city.
But not Readville.
The enclave of single-family homes and old warehouses at the southern end of Hyde Park feels more like a slice of suburbia. Tucked between Milton and Dedham, it’s as far as you can get from downtown and still be in Boston. But Readville is just a 20 minute ride from South Station on the commuter rail line that splits the neighborhood in two. And its old warehouses could be prime development sites in a city that is starved for housing.
That’s why builders are circling, stirring debate among residents about how much development is too much and whether their quiet section of the city can absorb what is coming.
“You drive around and see the big developments in other parts of town,” said longtime resident Mary Bender. “Now people have found Readville. That’s a little scary.”
Most of the conversation has centered on two major projects near Readville’s commuter rail station. One, proposed two years ago but still under city review, would put about 500 apartments in what’s now an industrial park along Sprague Street. The other, long discussed but only recently filed with the Boston Planning & Development Agency, would include 305 apartments and condos on Hyde Park Avenue along the tiny Father Hart Bridge, at the site of a rundown storage warehouse.
If approved, the two complexes combined could boost Readville’s population by about 50 percent. Supporters say the newcomers could bring new restaurants and retail shops; there aren’t many of either now. But critics fear more traffic on already-choked roads and a surge in demand that might push blue-collar jobs out of one of the few pockets of Boston where they still exist.
“Boston can’t be all high-tech and biotech,” said Craig Martin, another longtime Readville resident. “We need light industry, too.”
How the two proposals play out has implications for Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s plan to add 69,000 new homes by 2030, an expansion he hopes will rein in some of the nation’s highest housing costs. Eight hundred new apartments and condos in Readville would make a dent and could clear the way for more.
Indeed, much of the growth envisioned in Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030 plan would come in these — some say — underused sections of the city, from Sullivan Square in Charlestown to the old Allston railyards. If these neighborhoods say no to development, it’s not clear where the city might expand its housing stock.
That’s not to say the Readville housing plans don’t have supporters. So far, however, the “no” crowd has been more vocal.
“I’d be getting yelled at after Mass, coming out of church,” said City Councilor Tim McCarthy, a lifelong Readville resident, who eventually came out against the Sprague Street project last fall. “People saying, ‘You’ve got to stop these buildings.’ ”
The biggest worry, many say, is traffic. Over the years, Readville’s economy has evolved from railroad-based light industry to become a hub of trucking and distribution. A massive city school bus yard sends waves of buses through the area each morning, while fleets of white vans stream up Sprague Street from an Amazon distribution center just over the city line in Dedham. On top of that, heavy trucks, delivery vehicles, and construction equipment rumble over Readville’s roads at all hours.
It’s already overwhelming, never mind with hundreds of new apartments, said Readville native Martha McDonough.
“Going six-tenths of a mile has taken me 40 minutes,” she said. “There’s just way too much.”
But others say the traffic from new residents would be more spread out than the waves of buses and delivery vans.
And if housing is rejected, those old buildings could become distribution centers, said Michael Sambuceti — who helped organize a petition supporting the Sprague Street project — which would do little to benefit Readville.
“It will help anchor the community to be more residential,” he said. “It helps to push away the industrial creep that’s occurring here.”
Then there are deeper questions, like who would be able to afford the new apartments, and how many would be set aside for low-income renters or seniors? Does a lot of rental housing make sense in a largely owner-occupied part of town? And how might the neighborhood handle such a surge in population?
“Readville only has about 1,500 homes,” resident Roberta Johnnene said. “It’s this small little section of Boston, and they’re going to put in another half that many apartments?”
Some residents say opinions about the projects are largely split along generational lines. Many of the most vocal opponents have lived most or all of their lives in Readville. Supporters are more likely to be relative newcomers, like Kerry Klaas, who moved to Readville about 10 years ago. She and her husband are raising their three children and would like more places for young families to live, and more to do in Wolcott Square, Readville’s de facto center.
“We have this little square, but it’s not somewhere I’m going to have my kids go run for an ice cream. It’d be nice to have a coffee shop,” Klaas said. “I would love to see some of the vitality you have in other neighborhoods.”
In the middle of this debate is the Walsh administration.
The mayor has made new housing — especially middle-income housing like what’s proposed in Readville — a top priority. But city officials say they’re mindful of neighborhood concerns and don’t want to force development where it isn’t wanted.
“The mayor’s housing plan is descriptive, not prescriptive,” said Jonathan Greeley, director of development review at the Boston Planning & Development Agency. “And this project is really ambitious.”
Over nearly two years of review for the Sprague Street proposal, the agency has nudged the developer, Noannet Group, to trim its plans. Last fall, Noannet cut 29 apartments and nearly 75,000 square feet from its proposal.
That plan is still under review, and Greeley said he suspects more cutbacks are likely.
“I think we’ll see a scaled-back proposal in response to what they’ve heard from the community,” he said.
Noannet executives declined to discuss the project, citing the ongoing review, but in a statement said it “will be a great project for Readville, Hyde Park, and the City of Boston.”
“It contains the elements the city needs most,” the statement added, citing its call for middle-class housing that’s close to mass transit.
Those elements are also what drew Jan Steenbrugge to Readville. He’s CEO of the development company Ad Meliora LLC, which is proposing the 305 condos and apartments at Hyde Park Avenue and Father Hart Bridge.
Ad Meliora has refined its plans through years of community meetings, Steenbrugge said, but is open to more changes as the project undergoes more formal review. Whatever housing goes on the 2.5-acre site will need a certain scale to make economic sense, he said. But he wants a project the neighbors will appreciate.
“We have to work hard to convince people that this is the right thing for the neighborhood,” Steenbrugge said. “That it has potential to improve on what’s there now.”