Without Archdiocese, dreams for St. Kevin's take shape

Uphams Corner stakeholders began imagining the future of the former St. Kevin's Parish property with a brainstorming session held last week, mulling over a number of concepts including new educational institutions, shops and restaurants, and green space.

The Archdiocese of Boston recently put the Columbia Road complex up for sale after closing the school last year. Though it has no obligation to consider the community's vision for the space when choosing a developer, participants hope the Archdiocese will factor their ideas into its decision.

"The last thing we want is someone else to come in and tell us what to do with the property," said Sasha Mungal, president of the Uphams Corner Westside Neighborhood Association.

Last week's meeting was the first of three organized to settle on a proposal.

Many suggested the St. Kevin's campus should have an educational mission with children's programs and adult training classes. Several attendees said they wanted a new branch library.

"This community was promised a library space since the 1950s," said Margaret Leahy-Wirth. "It's appalling what the neighborhood has had to put up with."

Others, however, warned against duplicating what already exists in the neighborhood, especially with the new Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center on Dudley Street in the works.

Another theme of possibilities considered Uphams Corner as a "cultural village." Redevelopment could be linked with the Strand Theatre, providing space for activities before and after shows.

New businesses could bring Uphams Corner "some life," said one attendee, and add revenue to the neighborhood.

Meeting participants universally stressed the need for adequate lighting in the area, especially in parking lots. But some felt there was not enough foot traffic for successful retail or restaurants.

Andrea Kaiser, executive director of the Bird Street Community Center youth organization located in the municipal building next door to St. Kevin's said she wants redevelopment compatible with the existing institutions in the area.

Kaiser and Floyd Williams Funeral Home's Dahria Williams both expressed their need for on-street parking and said new on-site parking must be adequate and accessible. The back of the St. Kevin's property, where there are parking spaces, is currently only accessible from Virginia Street.

"One point of entry is not going to work," said Arturo Vasquez, principal of SAS/Design, the architecture and urban design firm hired by Uphams Corner Main Street to assist in the community vision process.

Stakeholders want to present a plan for the property to the Archdiocese before it selects a developer. Since any developer would likely have to go through the Boston Redevelopment Authority's Article 80 review process before construction, which requires public input, it is hoped the Archdiocese and potential developers would heed some of the community's ideas.

Uphams Corner Main Street executive director Zach Cohen said all concepts should be considered at early stage, however unfeasible.

"We're not going to limit ourselves based on guesses of what might limit us down the road," he said. "The sky's the limit. Let's enter dreamland for a while, then come back to reality and bring those extremes together."

The 2.23-acre St. Kevin's campus includes the school building and church on Columbia Road, the convent on Bird Street, and a large amount of open space between and behind the buildings.

An abutting city lot is also potentially in play for development.

The Columbia Road municipal building, which houses Bird Street and the Uphams Corner library, is not up for redevelopment.

One participant suggested reversing the campus' layout by replacing the buildings on Columbia Street with parking and constructing new buildings on the hill in back of the property.

Green space was a major theme in a presentation by Vasquez, principal of SAS/Design. He encouraged the meeting's 30 participants to remember Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace vision, the linking series of parks and green space the landscape architect designed for the city. The final section of the plan, "The Dorchesterway," which would connect Franklin Park to Boston Harbor with a parkway along Columbia Road, was never completed.

Vasquez said the redevelopment of St. Kevin's could retain and improve parts of the property that are already open space, and add more in the spirit of Olmsted.

No representative from the Archdiocese was present at the meeting, though Mike Foley from Jack Conway Real Estate, the firm selling the property, took notes. A sale price has yet to be set.

The lack of church participation angered some attendees.

"The Archdiocese is looking for money," said neighbor Margaret Leahy-Wirth. "It's not going to care what we want there. They won't listen to us."

"The Archdiocese has pillaged this neighborhood several times so there's not a lot of trust out there," said another participant.

An Archdiocese spokesperson previously said it would listen to ideas from the community, though it would not participate in the public meetings. An Archdiocese representative has met with Uphams Corner Main Street, Uphams Corner Westside Neighborhood Association, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative members to discuss the property.

Uphams Corner Main Street's Zach Cohen said the relationship with the Archdiocese has been positive.

"They've maintained an open process with us from the beginning," he said. "Their voice has been at the table."

Work on a community proposal for St. Kevin's will move quickly along at two more scheduled meetings. On April 16, SAS/Design will present a set of options for the property based on last week's brainstorming session. Attendees will analyze the plans and suggest changes.

A final design will be unveiled for comment at a May 21 meeting.