Chambers presents Columbia Point dealership plans, draws concern over master plan impact

By 
Mike Deehan, Special to the Reporter
Dec. 7, 2012

Herb Chambers: Auto magnate looks to enter hometown market. Herb Chambers: Auto magnate looks to enter hometown market. Savin Hill residents heard from one of the region’s leading auto dealers Thursday about his plan to bring a pre-owned BMW dealership to Columbia Point, an area expected to see high growth in residences and businesses. Herb Chambers Companies of Somerville plan to convert the former WLVI-TV station near the northern end of Morrissey Boulevard into a sales and service center for the high-end German automaker.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city’s planning agency, hosted the meeting at the Cristo Rey Boston High School on Savin Hill Avenue.

Chambers himself attended the meeting and answered residents concerns about the project. “I think this is great for Dorchester because there’s a lot of positive energy going into the area,” Chambers said to the crowd of about 35 people gathered in the Cristo Rey library.

A development boom is coming to the area, with Boston developer Synergy planning a $60 million residential project on Morrissey Boulevard. More residences, planned by Corcoran Jennison Companies, are set for Mt. Vernon St. The wave comes after a Boston Redevelopment Authority task force, which included neighborhood activists, set out guidelines for developers for the 412 acres between Dorchester Bay and Interstate 93, with a heavy emphasis on residences and retail and office space.

District 3 Councillor Frank Baker offered his support for the Herb Chambers project, but voiced concerns about the project’s impact on the Columbia Point plan. Baker asked Chambers if he would be flexible enough in the future to work with potential developers working to implement the master plan.

Paul Losordo, Chambers’ corporate counsel, admitted that the former WLVI parcel, which is sandwiched between the Boston Globe’s headquarters and the Greater Boston Media building, is the “small step child” of the bigger properties. Losordo said Chambers “won’t stand in your way” if the master plan goes into development.

“We’re a place holder. We’re not going in there doing anything major. We’re making an unattractive building into an attractive one,” Losordo said.

Savin Hill resident Don Walsh, who chaired the master plan task force, opposes Chambers’ project because it doesn’t contribute to the enactment of the plan.

When asked by Chambers’ attorney if he would rather see the site remain delinquent until development of the master plan could begin, Walsh was adamant. “For the time being, yes,” Walsh said, drawing a few groans from supporters of Chambers’ plan.

Chambers calls himself a proud Dorchester native, having been raised in St. Peter’s parish and attending the Mather and Grover Cleveland schools before leaving the neighborhood to join the Navy at age 17.

Chambers spoke to the Reporter about a coincidental connection he has with the site he plans to turn into his 51st dealership. “I learned how to drive in that parking lot,” Chambers said. “Used to be a First National,” he said, explaining how he practiced driving in the former bank parking lot on Saturdays when the adjacent supermarket was closed.

Kevin Joyce, an attorney representing Chambers’ project, said the new dealership would need to meet the standards set out by BMW, but certain changes could be made to meet the expectations of the city and neighbors. Joyce said some changes to landscaping and other details could be altered to match the “general flow” of the area.

The plan calls for renovating the existing building into a high-end dealership. The building’s footprint would remain the same as the current building except for the addition of a ramp to allow cars to be moved in and out of the building. Under the plan, the current curb cuts will be retained, the fence will be repaired and the sign tower that used to advertise the WB network to traffic along the Expressway will be converted to one featuring Chambers’ names and the BMW brand.

The renovated building would be “a heck of a lot better looking situation that what’s existing there now,” Chambers said. The construction project is expected to bring in 80 temporary jobs and 40 full time positions at the dealership.

Baker said he was concerned about the role of local workers in the redevelopment project and urged Chambers to use union labor so regulations governing the use of local workers would apply. Losordo said Chambers had a positive meeting with state Rep. Marty Walsh in November and shook his hand, agreeing in some capacity to union labor. “He’ll hang me if we change our mind,” Chambers said with a chuckle.

The plans call for an eleven-car showroom with four outdoor display areas and eight service bays. A basement parking area will provide storage for 27 vehicles being prepped for service and the main lot will hold 140 vehicles.

More than one meeting attendee questioned the amount of traffic the dealership would bring in. Chambers replied that car sales are unique among businesses in that they cause little impact to traffic compared to other businesses.

Chambers owns two other BMW dealerships, one in Sudbury and another along Commonwealth Avenue.

At one point in the nearly hour-long meeting, Chambers was urged to append “of Dorchester” to the official name of the dealership. Chambers said BMW may forbid that, but that he doesn’t shy from his Dot roots.

“Some people might not be proud of it,” Chambers said. “I am.”