The recently refurbished Fairmount commuter rail line is a bet that a train can revitalize neighborhoods that have been at Boston’s economic fringes for decades. The line, which runs from South Station to Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park, is lined with vacant lots and shuttered industrial properties. For years, these properties radiated blight. But since the Fairmount upgrades last year, they’ve become hot commodities. There’s no surer sign of the transformative power of transit investment than the sight of real estate developers fighting to get hold of an abandoned box warehouse in Uphams Corner, or a long-shuttered car dealership outside Mattapan Square.
Luring developers with transit has become a familiar tactic in the area. In Somerville, a new Orange Line station has unlocked millions of square feet of new housing, storefronts, and office space, while the future arrival of the Green Line extension will enable a wide-scale redevelopment of the city's Union Square neighborhood.
But the Green Line is only adding to what's already a vibrant cultural and commercial center. The Fairmount, by comparison, is trying to create a development market where none exists, by connecting transit-starved neighborhoods to the downtown, and to the Newmarket industrial district.
The line runs through neighborhoods that range from working-class to quite poor. The City of Boston owns the largest development parcels along the rail line. The properties fell into city hands because their former owners forfeited after deciding they weren't even worth their taxes.
The rail line itself remains a work in progress. A key station at Mattapan Square and Blue Hill Avenue is still in planning. Until new rapid-service cars arrive in 2020, the Fairmount will operate as a commuter rail line — an awkward fit for a short, Boston-only corridor. But even in its half-finished form, the Fairmount is working. The rail line has condensed some of the longest commutes in Boston. And it has turned vacant, weed-strewn, tax-foreclosed properties into hot commodities.
The city-owned Maxwell Box and Cote Ford parcels are twin barometers of decline and resurgence along the Fairmount Line. The Maxwell property sits in Uphams Corner. The Cote site is an abandoned car dealership on Cummins Highway, outside Mattapan Square. They're both long-vacant neighborhood eyesores, they both abut the Fairmount tracks, and they were both seized from delinquent owners. Each property is roughly three acres — big enough to be potential game-changers as development parcels, but also big enough to drag down their surrounding blocks in their current, derelict state.
The sites were put out to bid last summer, and each has drawn multiple bids from developers. This level of competition would have been unheard-of even a few years ago. But the promise of rapid-transit service by the end of the decade has completely upended the development environment surrounding the parcels.
Boston city officials are currently evaluating the bids. Most conform, broadly, to the visions community members outlined earlier this year: They contain mixed-income housing at a large scale, and contain some commercial space. On both properties, the city received bids from nonprofit neighborhood developers, and from a private developer seeking to build market-rate apartments. The bids by the private developer, Corcoran Jennison, show just how much the Fairmount Line has changed the neighborhoods it runs through. Corcoran is proposing to build hundreds of units of middle-income housing, without a public subsidy, on properties the development market wouldn't touch, even a few years ago.
If Boston is going to hit Mayor Marty Walsh's housing targets — adding 53,000 new housing units, and driving Boston's population to 700,000 people — the city is going to have to figure out how to move the needle on housing construction outside the Seaport and the downtown core. The developers now circling long-abandoned Fairmount Line properties show the formula isn't all that complicated: When governments invest in transit, development will follow.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.