Bulldozers tore apart Jamaica Plain and Roxbury more than four decades ago, and the wounds lingered long after the demolition crews, who had cleared away homes and businesses to make way for a highway that was never built, vanished. The city is only now erasing the scars that the failed Southwest Expressway created. This work, while a long time coming, is happening at a critical time for Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, and the city as a whole.
When developers and city and state officials gather in Jackson Square along the Roxbury-Jamaica Plain line on Tuesday, cut the ribbon on one major new housing development, and then cross Columbus Avenue to break ground on another, they’ll do more than just perform the ceremonial rituals that accompany construction in Boston. They’ll demonstrate a path forward in a city struggling under the weight of housing woes.
Boston is full of places like Jackson Square — places where awful planning years ago has created enticing development opportunities today. Boston’s housing market is pricing the city’s middle- and working-class residents out of existence. These legacy sites now represent the city’s best hope for creating stable mixed-income neighborhoods. But for this hope to come to fruition, new housing developments can’t all take 40 years to come together.
Jackson Square shows community development activism at its best. Residents on both sides of Columbus Avenue turned back the Southwest Expressway, and secured parkland and an Orange Line subway expansion in the highway’s place. They pulled this off because they were organized, and because they coupled their opposition to the highway project with a positive alternative. They articulated a vision of using the cleared real estate around the Jackson Square Orange Line station as a new physical and economic anchor for the surrounding neighborhoods.
All this activism resulted in a 10-year, $250 million redevelopment plan being driven by three nonprofit developers. Tuesday marks both the opening of the first building in this effort — a six-story, 103-unit mixed income apartment project by the Community Builders — and the start of the second — a 37-unit housing project by Urban Edge. Later phases will encompass an Urban Edge-built youth and community center, and hundreds of additional housing units built by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp.
Jackson Square’s redevelopment will reknit neighborhoods that have been physically separated since the Southwest Expressway clearance more than four decades ago. Highway demolition left behind a needlessly wide avenue, difficult to cross on foot and lined with vacant land and industrial parcels. Columbus Avenue. might as well be a highway. The square’s reconstruction will moderate the roadway, bringing active uses to both sides of the street, and creating a pedestrian-friendly streetscape that will encourage residents and shoppers to cross between the square’s Roxbury and Jamaica Plain sides.
Still, Jackson Square isn’t just a physical redevelopment project. It’s also about economic reconstruction. Middle- and working-class Boston residents are steadily disappearing because Boston is adding new luxury homes by the thousands, but very few developers are building homes for the city’s economic center. Jackson Square’s redevelopment is aimed squarely at this neglected market. The project’s first apartment building, at 225 Centre Street, will house 35 low- and extremely low-income families. Those 35 affordable units attracted over 1500 applicants. Just as importantly, the building’s 68 market-rate units will be priced at moderate rents affordable to downtown workers and young families — folks the city desperately needs to hang on to, but whom the downtown’s new luxury towers ignore.
The developers who are rebuilding Jackson Square can afford to build for the non-luxury market because they’re building outside the downtown core. In the neighborhoods, cheaper land and moderate heights lead to rents average residents can afford. There’s a lesson here for city and state agencies, which control meaningful chunks of real estate from Melnea Cass Boulevard and Dudley Square, to Forest Hills, Sullivan Square, and the Fairmount corridor. Jackson Square shows that these parcels can become clusters of moderately-priced, neighborhood-strengthening housing — if their public owners price them with this end in mind, and get serious about moving them into the development pipeline.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.