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Looks like Chelsea is getting the last laugh

CHELSEA — I've been beating the Chelsea-is-coming-back drum for a long time now. After decades as a punchline, the city right over the Tobin has been steadily shaking off its corrupt and decrepit past. Innovators have been innovating. Yuppies have been yuppifying. Builders have been building.

Even so, I was gobsmacked by what I saw here last week. Right by Route 1 stands a massive new apartment building called One North of Boston. The site on which the complex sits has a fabulously checkered past, even for Chelsea: Over the decades, it has hosted a wallpaper manufacturer, sweatshops, prostitutes, and a fight club, says City Manager Jay Ash.


Now? A couple hundred luxury rental units for unencumbered younguns priced out of the crazy Boston market, with a couple hundred more to come. It has a concierge, a stylishly appointed gym, and a screening room. Soon, there will be on-site doggie day care, a pool, and a fire pit. Rents go from $1,395 for studios to $2,400 for three bedrooms. Crazy high for Chelsea, but about half of what you'd pay in Boston. One month after it opened, 73 percent of the apartments are rented.

I'm not crazy about the generic exterior, but inside, One North is a pretty place. Apartments have dark bamboo floors, kitchens with stainless appliances and undermount sinks, and walk-in closets. For a houseporn addict like me — my secret shame: I spend hours scrolling shelter sites, drooling over finishes I could never afford — it's hard to remain professional in these settings. Looking up at the enormous glass-mosaic light fixtures in the double-height lobby, I could barely keep it together. I wanted to roll on the polished concrete floors. I wanted to embrace the blue-lit communal coffee machine. I wanted to marry the place.


Not long ago, few would have thought this possible, says Damian Szary of Gate Residential, the building's co-developer. "We had trouble raising debt and equity," says this son of Polish political exiles, who settled in Chelsea. "A lot of people see Chelsea for what it was. Our demographic, 25- to 35-year-olds, don't remember the old Chelsea."

What they see is a city Ash and an army of loyalists have been selling: A diverse community just a few minutes from downtown, with heart, and great transportation options (One North is a minute from the commuter rail, and the coming Silver Line extension). More and more people have been buying it: Artists and those who love them have moved into lofts in the Box District and elsewhere. Hotels have popped up on former industrial sites and more are on the way. The Market Basket is a palace. The FBI is coming, not to bust crime rings, but to a new regional headquarters. The arrival of Starbucks was a seismic moment. "We're in a really good place right now," says Ash, who grew up here.

Not that there aren't still problems. Pockets of the city are still desolate. Crime has dropped, but it's no Mayberry. The schools, and the kids who go to them, still struggle. And on the day I visited, throwback Michael McLaughlin, serving three years in federal prison, pleaded guilty to more corruption charges from his time as head of the city housing authority.

But if Chelsea does it right, developments like One North can help pay for solutions to the city's ills: Property taxes can fund social programs; luxe housing can subsidize more affordable abodes.


The last thing anybody should want is for the balance to tip too far — for Chelsea to gentrify and push out the residents who have come here for more than a century to gain their first toeholds. Ash has seen that happen in much of Boston, and it's starting next door in East Boston, too. More fancy apartments could make Chelsea. Too many would ruin it.

"We want those longtime residents to be able to stay in Chelsea," Ash says. "We're trying to manage the gentrification."

Wait — after all those decades of misery and blight, the guy who runs this city is saying things like "manage the gentrification?"

Now that's luxury.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com