City eyes economic growth in Mattapan: Density at Cote site has some concerned

A long-term planning project aimed at spurring business and housing growth in Mattapan is set to begin a new round of activity this year, with a newly organized committee of residents and merchants now in place and charged with implementing an "action agenda" for the neighborhood. Led by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the Mattapan Economic Development Initiative (MEDI) comes as a robust new round of public investment is beginning to have an impact in this community of 35,000 Bostonians.

"This process began by thinking positively about what Mattapan has going for it," said Dana Whiteside, deputy director of economic development at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. "It's a neighborhood with significant natural assets where there had been some divestment in the last couple of years prior to the beginning of the initiative."

The MEDI initiative comes as a new infusion of state and city funds have begun to pump into key infrastructure projects in Mattapan. The city of Boston is moving forward with long-stalled plans to build a new public library branch on Blue Hill Avenue to replace the BPL's existing branch on Hazelton Street. Long-deferred state investment is also coming online for other key transportation projects: The MBTA is currently rebuilding its trolley and bus hub in Mattapan Square, a modernization that- like a similar project at Ashmont station- involves the private redevelopment of adjacent property. And many more state dollars are being pumped into the expansion and modernization of the Fairmount commuter rail line, with renovations now underway at Morton Street station. A new Fairmount Line station is also on the drawing boards for an as-yet undetermined site between Cummins Highway and Blue Hill Avenue.

These new projects follow other major redevelopment efforts already underway, including two separate public-private efforts to re-use the campuses of Boston Speciality Rehab Hopsital on River Street and the old Boston State Hospital on Morton Street.

The BRA-led team of community advisors are a mix of well-known activists and residents with untapped leadership potential. Their task over the next several years (there is no definitive timeline) will be to pursue a handful of goals laid out in a 158-page action agenda issued last year. The key elements of the plan include the creation of a Main Street program for Mattapan and the development of a timeline for revitalization in three key business nodes.

Among Mattapan's 'natural' assets, said Whiteside, are a very high percentage of residents under the age of 18 compared to the city as a whole, a large number of families per capita in comparison to the overall city, and a very high home ownership rate as well. These factors equate a large amount of untapped local spending power, something that city officials hope can churn new growth in the neighborhood's key business districts.

Part of the strategy to draw merchants and developers to the three targeted commercial zones is for the implementation team to focus on development projects at a number of 'gateway parcels,' as Whiteside describes them, whose prominent position along main thoroughfares into the neighborhood make them particularly important to defining a new image for Mattapan.

The first such challenge will be a proposed residential development at the old Cote Ford car dealership on Cummins Highway, a long-vacant site where development is complicated by a tax debt of almost $1 million and the need for a costly environmental clean-up.

Community Builders Inc., a national affordable housing developer, is negotiating a Purchase and Sale agreement and has control of the property, but their initial request for community approval on the recommendation of the BRA was declined by residents who feel the number of units proposed for the site - 100 rental units and 41 homeowner units, according to the Community Builder website - is too dense and could create parking and traffic flow problems.

"Frankly that's about twice as many units as we'd like to see go in there," said Karen Kaigler, a Woodhaven Street resident who works for the Main Streets program at City Hall. "I think the traffic impact would significantly impact our quality of life and I'm not interested in seeing that happen. However, I am interested in housing."

Kaigler said her neighbors, who met with Community Builders representatives at a recent meeting of the Woodhaven Street Association, were unlikely to support the project unless the number of total units was lowered to well below 100.

Felicia Jacques, a director of development for Community Builders, said her company would do everything possible to try to balance the community's input with a project plan that was still economically feasible.

"We are trying to get a handle on what the true costs are," said Jacques, pointing to the added difficulty caused by the tax debt and environmental issues. "We want to do a project that fits the aesthetic of the neighborhood and would bring some affordable housing to Mattapan."

Russell Holmes, a Mattapan resident who was chair of the first Mayoral Advisory Group and will also sit on the newly implementation team said the Cote Ford development has potential equal to other major revitalization projects in the neighborhood, notably the MBTA stations and the library branch.

"Those are critical projects in our focus areas," said Holmes. "If we can bring the other potential stores or vendors into and attached to those key points, key developments, we know we can have impact that is immediate."

Whiteside said that another implicit goal of the MEDI process has been cultivating new leaders within the Mattapan community.

"The opportunity for leadership development within the community is one of the project's more philosophical goals," said Whiteside.

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