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The Boston Globe

Opinion

PAUL MCMORROW

Opportunity lost along the Fairmount Line

The Fairmount transit line is loaded with potential. But most of it sits wasted in vacant parcels.

The place where the two come together most vividly is the land surrounding Uphams Corner Station. The Leon Electric warehouse, a massive brick and concrete structure, looms directly above the new Uphams station. The abandoned warehouse seems ready-made for the type of redevelopment that turns around neighborhoods. It’s a long-vacant relic of a vanished industrial economy, and its location on top of a rail station makes it perfect for a bold housing play. Another abandoned industrial site, the old Maxwell Box factory, presents a similarly ripe opportunity at the opposite end of the Uphams station platform.

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Sites like these line the $200 million Fairmount corridor. Some are publicly owned, some sit in private hands, but all deserve a better fate than to rust alongside an expensive new transit corridor. Boston desperately needs moderately priced housing along mass transit. But the economics of building along the Fairmount corridor are tough, and the neighborhood politics aren’t much easier. If the Fairmount is going to deliver catalytic change, the city needs to come to grips with the politics of housing development and gentrification, and make the case that the two don’t have to come joined at the hip.

The newly refurbished Fairmount Line is the only commuter rail line that begins and terminates inside Boston’s city limits. It connects formerly remote sections of Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester to South Station, erasing some of the city’s most arduous commutes. Boston Redevelopment Authority planners are in the middle of a years-long study of Fairmount redevelopment scenarios. They’re currently projecting the construction of roughly 2,000 housing units along the line. They envision 100 apartments rising above the Maxwell site, and 200 homes replacing the Leon building.

These numbers sound fine, until one considers that mayoral candidate Mike Ross recently began advocating for the construction of 10,000 new housing units along the Fairmount. The city isn’t just selling itself short on the Fairmount, Ross says; it’s leaving most of the line’s construction potential on the table.

The Fairmount corridor has room to grow. Uphams Corner has a population density that’s less than half what it is in the South End or Beacon Hill. The question isn’t about whether Fairmount communities could accommodate an ambitious new construction agenda, but whether they’d allow it, politically.

Ross’s 10,000-unit figure might be overshooting the mark, or it could be right on target. That’s an argument on the margins. The real issue is why the housing goals coming from the BRA are skewing so much lower. Part of it is caution over costs: The city is leaning toward five-story wood-framed buildings, which can be built and rented more cheaply than apartments in taller steel structures. But there’s also fear in the neighborhoods about waves of wealthy new residents; residents are pushing for shorter buildings along the Fairmount as a way of defending themselves against the threat of gentrification.

Gentrification fears follow new construction projects across the city. Most neighborhoods reflexively try to guard against gentrification by pushing back on new development. But in a growing city like Boston, that’s only a recipe for higher housing prices. New residents are pushing into Dorchester. The question is only whether newly built buildings along transit absorb this demand, or whether it pours into neighborhood triple-deckers.

Throughout the mayoral campaign, Ross has been arguing for the stabilization of neighborhoods through ambitious building programs, paired with far more aggressive affordable housing targets than Boston currently pursues. The Fairmount Line will be the place where this choice comes to a head. The Fairmount is teeming with development opportunity. To meet it, though, Bostonians have to get past the fantasy that inaction keeps housing prices down — especially where trains run.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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