Preserve Widett Circle’s industrial legacy
A KEY LEGACY OF BOSTON 2024’s often-contentious effort to land the Summer Games may be that it put out-of-the-way Widett Circle on the mental map of policy makers, planners, and developers. As a result, a strong long-term vision needs to be formulated soon to steer inevitable real estate speculation in a direction that is best for the city as a whole. At the same time, a plan for Widett Circle needs to acknowledge that the area is not on the waterfront and will always be surrounded by transportation infrastructure.
Boston needs adequate space for the companies that serve homes, shops, and businesses. From caterers to plumbers to medical labs, a wide range of service providers requires easy access to clients on a daily basis. Several years ago, the City of London realized that its “postindustrial” districts were disappearing at an alarming rate in the gold rush to develop shiny new residential neighborhoods and office districts. As the mayor of London outlined in the foreword to a September 2012 report: “Even London’s increasingly service-based economy needs affordable land and premises for less high-value activities. These activities include its ‘high tech’ and more established manufacturing as well as the distribution and logistics functions which are essential to a city which imports most of its goods.”
Rather than erase the industrial legacy of Widett Circle, perhaps the city should embrace the area’s use and character to create a unique mixed-use district that encourages a range of companies, from conventional fabricators to bespoke food production to maker spaces like Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville. Widett Circle’s easy highway access and gritty atmosphere make it ideal for a ground-up industrial loft area that has the large flexible spaces and creative businesses of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Industry City in New York. Widett could become one of several mixed-use industrial districts that encourages 21st-century industrial uses and maker spaces, along with inexpensive flex space for start-ups and artist studios. This vision is consistent with the successful nearby SoWa market and would create a walkable cultural destination for residents of the South End and South Boston.
New kinds of hybrid building are key. Such structures feature high-ceiling industrial space on the ground floor with several floors of loft space above for tech and life science start-ups, and other businesses. The buildings in South Boston’s King Terminal are an example of the scale and style of buildings that might be built.
Typically, one side should face pedestrian-and-bicycle-friendly streets, while the opposite side should be designed to accommodate loading docks and include an ample yard to allow for truck maneuvering. Companies that occupy the industrial space should be allowed to sell their products in sidewalk-facing showrooms, but these retail outlets should be limited in size to discourage big box stores. Harpoon Brewery on the South Boston waterfront follows this model.
A small percentage of neighborhood retail should also be permitted in Widett Circle — most importantly, places that serve coffee and lunch for the workforce. This retail should be located on the same “address” street as the manufacturer showrooms and lobbies that provide access to the upper floors.
In addition to the shortage of available industrial properties citywide, many older industrial buildings are no longer adequate for contemporary manufacturing and distribution. The ceilings are too low and the buildings do not meet current code requirements, especially for food production businesses. Mixed-use industrial development in new neighborhoods might be the only way that additional industrial space can be built in cities — including Boston — where property is expensive. Higher rents for upper-floor commercial loft space can subsidize the construction of ground-floor industrial spaces. The revenue generated by upper-floor development can also be allocated to district-wide infrastructure and public realm enhancements, which is necessary in older industrial areas like Widett Circle. Examples include a comprehensive green storm-water system, enhanced utilities for tech businesses, and a new kind of street network that works for trucks, pedestrians, and bicycles.
The density of uses and people resulting from hybrid buildings could improve the walkability of Widett Circle, promote access by the T, bus, and bicycle, and make neighborhood retail spaces economically viable. Entrepreneurs and a younger workforce attracted by these amenities could skew the area’s profile toward companies that work at the intersection of research, design, and fabrication. Developers are eager to transform historical industrial districts like Dumbo in Brooklyn and Fort Point in Boston. Why not create a 21st-century mixed-use manufacturing district from scratch that recognizes Widett Circle’s history? Because fabrication and distribution capabilities would be built into the neighborhood’s DNA, it would invite a true innovation economy into the heart of the city.
Tim Love is principal at Utile and a professor at Northeastern University.