For more than four decades, Malden’s cavernous Government Center literally divided the city in half. Now it is being knitted back together again.
The old building, which blocked Pleasant Street and choked off the downtown shopping district, has been demolished. In its place is a mixed-use development that will reopen the thoroughfare and improve access to a nearby MBTA station while adding housing, retail, parking, and a much smaller Malden City Hall.
The project comes as Malden’s downtown is experiencing a revival.
“We have already seen a dramatic change in the downtown business area,” said Hilda Torres, executive director of My Little Best Friends Early Learning Center, located at 384 Main St. “In the past year, many new restaurants and business have opened. We see many more people downtown shopping and dining.”
A popular addition to Pleasant Street has been Boda Borg, a reality gaming business that originated in Sweden.
“We attract about 165,000 guests a year,” said Owner/CEO Chad Ellis. “While our customers range in age from 7 to well into their 80s, the average age is 29.”
Ellis notes that his customers come from all around Greater Boston. Some drive, but having the Malden Center T Station a quick 5-minute walk — without having to navigate around the old Government Center — will be a bonus.
Opening in 1976, the Government Center was part of an urban planning trend from the 1950s through the 1970s to close shopping areas to automobile traffic and create large pedestrian ways in an effort to compete with suburban shopping centers and malls.
“We were late to the trend,” said Malden’s mayor, Gary Christenson. “By the time the building opened, the retail district was already in trouble. Shoppers were abandoning the downtown for the new shopping malls. Closing off Pleasant Street actually made things worse.”
A 2012 report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council said the government center complex — which also included the police station — created a dead zone and should be demolished and replaced.
“The old government center complex no longer met our needs. We did not need that much space, maintenance had been deferred, and it was not designed for current technology. It would have cost upwards of $15 million to rehab a building that still cut off Pleasant Street,” Christenson said. “It was abundantly clear that we had to do something.”
The solution was to demolish the 130,000-square-foot complex and build in its place a transit-oriented development with 320 market-rate apartments, more than 22,500 square feet of street-level retail, and 330 parking spaces. It also includes a 50,000-square-foot condominium that will become Malden City Hall.
By creating a city hall condo within a mixed-use residential and retail center, Malden is doing something so new and unusual, it is difficult to find another example for comparison.
“Building a new city hall into a larger mixed-use redevelopment project is unique in the region,” said Josh Fiala, principal planner for the MAPC.
Together, the new City Hall and the new police station, which opened on Eastern Avenue in 2016, cost about $36 million. Christenson cited three steps to funding the project.
First, Malden sold the 2.2-acre development site on Pleasant Street to the Jefferson Apartment Group of Virginia for approximately $10 million. Second, the city received three MassWorks awards, totaling $9.85 million. The remaining costs will be covered through bonding about $16 million.
“The police station was located on the old site where city hall was, so finding them a new home was part of the project,” said Ron Hogan, Malden’s director of parking. “We bought a parcel on Eastern Avenue that was an eyesore for the neighbors and the subject of many complaints.”
There have been additional costs for relocating municipal services while the new city hall is being built, but Hogan said they are largely offset by savings in utilities and maintenance that had been required to run the old government center.
Access to public transportation is a key element in the redevelopment plan.
“I believe the downtown area will be invigorated by the reconnection of Pleasant Street and the removal of the city hall building, giving the nearly 12,000 daily riders who use the Malden Center T Stop much easier access to our restaurants and stores,” Christenson said. “Even though the train station was nearby, there was no easy access. Pedestrians had to go through a maze from the station to local businesses.”
The new Malden City Hall is expected to be fully occupied in late 2019 or early 2020.
“Malden gets a new city hall and the road to nowhere will be reconnected,” said the mayor, “and we are achieving our ultimate goal, which is to stimulate economic development and strengthen the downtown businesses.”
Linda Greenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.