Metro

Don’t let Eastie become Southie, residents say

07/21/2018 East Boston Ma -East Boston is seeing growth in housing and other developments. New construction on Decatur Street and Liverpool Street in the shadow of older housing. Reporter:Topic
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff
New construction is underway on Decatur Street and Liverpool Street in the shadow of older housing.

East Boston, with its picturesque views of the harbor and downtown skyline, diverse restaurants, and historic landmarks, has emerged as one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods for real estate — second only, perhaps, to South Boston’s Seaport District.

Only, don’t let Eastie turn into the Seaport District.

So say community leaders who have called for a temporary halt to development in East Boston — at least until some sort of community master plan can be put in place. They say they fear a disjointed building spree will turn their neighborhood enclave into another overdeveloped, mismatched expanse of gentrification — like what has happened across the harbor.

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“I think we have a lot to learn from South Boston,” Debra Cave, a lifelong East Boston resident who heads the Eagle Hill Civic Association, told a crowded July 16 City Council hearing in the neighborhood.

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“They’re rushing to build, and it will change the landscape,” she added later, while giving a tour of gutted Italianate Victorians being converted into condominiums.

Last week, city officials responded by announcing the launch this fall of a neighborhoodwide review of planning and zoning priorities, called PLAN: East Boston. It’s the first master plan effort of its kind for the neighborhood in 18 years.

New construction on Orleans Street in the shadow of older housing.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
New construction on Orleans Street in the shadow of older housing.

Of concern is that the burgeoning development of apartment complexes and towers has already begun to alter the landscape of the largely residential neighborhood and its population — displacing many of the Italian and newer Central American immigrants who called the neighborhood home.

The overall increase in the number of residents, many of whom are wealthier transplants, has begun to overburden the infrastructure, some say. And it all comes at a time when resiliency to climate change should be on the forefront of planning for a neighborhood surrounded by ocean, residents say.

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They point to South Boston’s Seaport District as an example of the disorganization they want to avoid: a new neighborhood made up of higher-income earners, with no fire station, school, or community center. Only recently has it gotten a CVS Pharmacy. Some architects call the district an urban designer’s nightmare.

“The identity gets sucked out of [the neighborhood],” said John Walkey, an Eastie resident and environmental justice advocate with GreenRoots Inc.

“We’ve gotten a little bit to a tipping point,” he said. “There’s just a sense that this development is going on without a plan.”

Even counterparts from South Boston have raised an alarm, telling East Boston locals not to repeat the mistakes of the Seaport District.

“We’re at the point of oversaturation,” City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a longtime public official from South Boston, told residents recently at a council hearing in East Boston. “There’s only so much you can stuff into one neighborhood.”

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East Boston’s population grew 17 percent from 2000 to 2015, outpacing the 10 percent growth seen citywide, according to city officials. By 2015, a majority of the 17,000 households, or 70 percent, were renters, and two-thirds of the homeowners were considered low- to moderate-income families by city standards.

In upcoming years, the number of residents is expected to spike with the planned revitalization of the former Suffolk Downs racetrack, which could add another 10,000 units of housing. While some of that land is in Revere, the total number of units would make up nearly a fifth of the 53,000 new units Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants to see built by 2030 to meet the anticipated citywide growth.

(Walsh also has hopes the area will house Amazon’s so-called second headquarters — a bid that, if the city wins, could bring more than 50,000 jobs — and more residents)

Residents say they do not oppose what they call responsible development, but historic buildings near Maverick Square have been demolished for standard-design condominium units, three-deckers have been demolished to make way for seven-unit dwellings, and trees in backyards are being dug up so that more housing units can be built.

In the meantime, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Blue Line, which connects East Boston to downtown, is deluged during the morning and evening commutes.

During heavy storms, parts of East Boston are under water, and while some newer buildings have been built to be resilient to storm waters, many older buildings are prone to flooding.

As part of PLAN: East Boston, the city said last week that it will launch a “flood resilience zoning overlay district,” which would set guidelines for new construction and the retrofitting of older buildings.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents the district and had called for the recent council hearing, said residents’ concern is that development is occurring with little oversight. She called it spot zoning, with each project being examined on its own merits but with no neighborhood guidelines. The neighborhood was last rezoned 27 years ago.

“What a lot of us are feeling, including myself, is that we lack control, we lack a vision, and we lack cohesion in this development boom we’re seeing,” Edwards said recently, “and many of us feel it’s to our total and complete exclusion.”

Cave, who grew up in Jeffries Point, said development has picked up steadily over the past two years. The backlog is so long, developers have to wait to address her Civic Association meetings.

For the recent Fourth of July fireworks over Boston Harbor, Cave and her husband made their way to the waterfront by Jeffries Point, just blocks from where she grew up on Webster Street — to a spot where she knew she could steal a view. But as she passed Marginal Street, she found herself on a new stretch of road she hadn’t traversed before, in the shadows of luxury towers that were new to her.

“It was a weird moment, to be in your own neighborhood and not know where you are,” she recalled. “There’s so much development; it’s just happening so fast.”

Milton J. Valencia
can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.