Cranes tore through trees in the courtyard of a Quincy Center Parking lot, the crackling bark opening up new views. In the background, trucks beeped and blared while engines revved. The sounds of change have come to Quincy.
The $1.6 billion downtown redevelopment is about to become a lot more conspicuous, with the official groundbreaking of the project on Monday. But in a huge undertaking where some aspects are still in flux, change may be the only certainty in the coming months.
Tired, single-story shops will eventually give way to high-rises, replacing a commuter mentality with a more urban lifestyle. While officials say disruption will be minimal and well worth it in the end, the neighborhood’s merchants are both thrilled and terrified about what lies ahead.
The first step is the $125 million renovation of an area named Merchants Row, which lies within Hancock Street, Cottage Avenue, and Chestnut Street.
“It feels really great. It feels that you’re building something that’s transformational, and that over time makes sense,” said Ken Narva, cofounding partner of Street-Works LLC, the lead developer.
Work has been taking place for months inside several of the Hancock block buildings, with seven storefronts abandoned to make way for a 15-story residential building named the Kilroy, and a five-story residential building to be called the Granite Trust Lofts.
Since February, asbestos has been removed from buildings to be demolished, 28 parking spaces have been closed off to make way for construction, and the cumbersome process of placing underground utilities is complete.
The trees that dot the existing parking lot have come down in recent weeks, and trucks are preparing to dig up the pavement and knock down the buildings within the construction block.
By the beginning of July, demolition of the buildings should be underway.
According to Narva, the clean and contained first stage will have little effect on area businesses.
“I think, except for the big tooth in the smile of Hancock, [construction] won’t have any impact. Over a period of time, there will be a lot of construction work at the site, but right now you won’t [be affected]. Not for several months,” Narva said. “The site is surrounded by existing buildings, so they won’t see much until steel rises.”
The change has elicited mixed emotions from business owners, who are starting to see alterations where for decades there had only been decline.
“It’s disconcerting. It’s worrisome as far as the construction itself, how it will impact business,” said Neil Kiley, owner of the Fat Cat restaurant, which sits across the street from the start of development. “But the larger issue is the big picture. What will be accomplished if it goes to plan, what they are hoping for, will be fantastic. To have something of that magnitude in Quincy, the city I grew up [in], will be fantastic.”
A focus on the future is helping Kiley get past the concerns of construction disruption, chief among them street access, displaced rodents, and dust.
“It’s still not affecting my business yet. I’m hoping it doesn’t get to that point . . . it’s our regular customers that will keep us going. It’s the other places that don’t have that, that’s who I worry for,” Kiley said.
A short walk from Kiley’s Chestnut Street restaurant, Quincy Food Club on Cottage Avenue might be one of those places. Manager Ebru Yokus has worked in the 15-year-old shop for 10 years, and said she is concerned customers won’t have a place to park.
Knowing that her block will be the last to be demolished in this process doesn’t allay the constant worry of when she’ll have to move.
“It’s good for Quincy . . . [but for us] we’re not sure.” she said. “We have to move, but we don’t have money for the moving. We are going to go to City Hall to ask for [help]. If they can’t, we will close.”
Monica Medeiros, owner of Monica’s Point Brazilian Store on Cottage Avenue, warily looked toward the construction site outside her door when she talked about leaving. She, too, doesn’t know where she will go.
The feeling is shared by The Bridal Secret owner Judy Riegelhaupt, who is an at-will tenant without a lease, along with many others on the block.
“It’s a dilemma,” said the store owner, who has been in Quincy Center for 22 years. “When a lot of this new construction happens and there are new spaces, that will be awesome. But the rental rates, I don’t know if they will be affordable.”
In the meantime, the noise and confusion from construction right outside her door will make running her business cumbersome.
“With any construction, it’s a pain . . . traffic-wise, parking wise . . . people are late for appointments,” she said. “I’m not trying to be as negative as a lot of people. You have to deal with it.”
For those facing more imminent ouster, there was a greater sense of calm. Tully’s Café owner Mark Tully said he was talking with Street-Works about what to do about his property, which sits on the Merchants Row lot. In the meantime, Tully said he is optimistic that construction will work around his still-open bar.
Jerry Mulvey, owner of Granite Rail Tavern on Cottage Avenue, said he signed an agreement with Street-Works to sell the building he has been in since December 1984.
“I’m going to be 65 next month, and it’s fine with me. It’s time to get out,” he said.
Like many, Mulvey spoke of the need to move on, the inevitable change of Quincy Center from it’s “Shoppertown USA” roots — which once included a mix of retail stores such as Sears, Roebuck, & Co., Miltons, and The Bargain Center — into something new.
Sitting in Mulvey’s bar, 68-year-old Richard Berry grumbled about the change.
“You always gotta look for the future; maybe it is the future. But I like the old. A lot of my friends like the old. It was nice,” Berry said.
The old isn’t good enough for Richard Vacca, however.
“I think it’s obviously a good thing. This whole contract should have been done 20 to 30 years ago,” said the owner of The Finer Cut hair salon.
Perhaps no one is as enthusiastic about the project as Mayor Thomas Koch, who shrugged off the idea that tearing down parts of Quincy Center should be at all bittersweet.
The once-hopping metropolis is long gone, Koch said, the places from an idyllic childhood leaving only memories and empty storefronts in their wake
“I think the bitterness is past,” he said. “Obviously there will be some people disrupted, relocated, they won’t be happy in the end. But the citizen, the average person, I don’t think there is any concern of what we will lose versus what we will gain in this process.”
Besides, change has already occurred, said Anthony Ricci, chairman of the Quincy Historic Commission. Look no further than the upcoming relocation of the Town Brook, or the completion of the Walter J. Hannon Parkway in 2011.
In an ironic way, the change has even precipitated an effort to preserve the past.
With a desire to bolster the history of the downtown to make it more attractive for tourism and help the city’s historic assets stand up to $1.6 billion in new construction, conservation projects have started at Old Quincy City Hall, the Coddington School, and the Church of the Presidents steeple, besides ongoing work in the Granite Trust building.
Locals are hopeful that the momentum can push Quincy from the rut of the familiar, moving the city willingly or reluctantly out of the shadow of Boston, which Quincy has long competed against for tourism and restaurant business, and Braintree’s South Shore Plaza, which some say sucked the life out of Quincy Center in the ’70s and ’80s.
For Ricci, that transformation can begin with these first, tangible steps.
“I am extremely hopeful,’’ Ricci said. “I was born and brought up in Quincy. I think if something is going to happen, this is it.”