Trains can make neighborhoods, by connecting residents to jobs and enabling an intensity of development that isn’t possible in places where residents are handcuffed to their cars. But trains can also break neighborhoods, because gentrification often comes hitched to the back of a rail car. If a city greets new transit with indifference, the most vulnerable residents around a new station don’t stand a chance of remaining in their neighborhood.
Boston is facing that dynamic because subway-like rail service will soon come to the Fairmount Line. The city is scrambling to find a way to harness the Fairmount’s economic potential without triggering runaway gentrification.
Boston’s dance with the Fairmount hinges on a pair of vacant, city-owned industrial properties, which hit the market this summer. They are the first of hundreds of publicly owned development parcels that should be sold, and redeveloped, in a big anti-gentrification effort along the line. But the properties will only really matter if the city, neighborhood residents, and outside developers can all agree to go big enough to make a real difference.
The city owns the old Cote Ford site in Mattapan and the former Maxwell box warehouse in Dorchester. Cote Ford, an old car dealership surrounded by Jersey barriers and cracked asphalt, sprawls on Cummins Highway, just up the street from Blue Hill Avenue and Mattapan Square. The Maxwell property is three acres of derelict industrial buildings north of Uphams Corner in Dorchester. Both sites should be crying out for redevelopment. But both slid into city ownership, and have sat idle, because there haven’t been many developers willing to build something of consequence on the outskirts of Uphams Corner or Mattapan Square.
The Fairmount Line, which runs directly behind both sites, changes everything. The line connects Hyde Park, Mattapan, and Dorchester with South Station. It puts neighborhoods that rank among the city’s poorest, and that have been saddled with some of the city’s worst commutes, a quick ride away from both downtown Boston and the emerging Newmarket industrial hub.
Several refurbished stations opened along the Fairmount Line over the past two years, but the real revolution will come over the next few years, when the MBTA begins replacing existing commuter rail trains with new self-propelled diesel-powered coaches. The new diesel coaches are essentially subway cars that run on commuter rail tracks. And when the Cote Ford and Maxwell sites are suddenly steps away from rapid transit stations, their value, and potential, will soar.
The whole idea behind the Fairmount Line is to bring economic activity to the streets that surround the train tracks. Rising property prices should be an indication that the rail line has created something people want to be a part of. But that’s only if the trains are helping to create wealth in neighborhoods instead of just importing it and pushing aside existing residents in the process. And, as research from Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy has shown, gentrification and displacement tend to follow closely behind transit expansion projects.
More than any other local transit expansion, the Fairmount has the potential to be uniquely gentrification-proof. That’s because the city owns an enormous amount of real estate along the line. That real estate will soon be unloaded rapidly. The city hopes to turn 200 small vacant parcels into one-, two-, and three-family homes containing roughly 400 housing units. So even without releasing any sizable parcels, the city can make a big push on affordable homeownership along the Fairmount.
If done right, Cote Ford and Maxwell have the potential to amplify these smaller efforts. They could become large wells of mixed-income housing, perched atop vibrant new storefronts. They should be new hubs of activity, and affordability, at stations that are poised suddenly to become main streets. The city is doing its part by selling the parcels at a time when they can do some good. Now it’s up to residents to line up behind projects big enough to blunt the gentrification that the Fairmount Line enables.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.