Report outlines ways for Fields Corner to turn things around

Fields Corner organizations should focus on improving the area’s existing housing stock, create up to 300 units of new affordable housing, and upgrade vacant business spaces, according to a report from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and his graduate students.

The 90-page report, completed earlier this year, was commissioned by VietAID, a local community development organization. It was the focus of a recent meeting of community members, who weighed the next steps they should take in revitalizing a diverse neighborhood where rising rents are a top concern.

The area, like other parts of the city, has been a constant draw for immigrants: In the last 50 years, Fields Corner has seen older Irish families largely move out and African Americans move in, then Latinos and Cape Verdeans, and now a burgeoning Vietnamese population, according to the report.

The report focuses on 5 census tracts and 6,900 households, which have seen the median income fall to $43,386 from $51,914 between 2000 and 2010. The tracts edge into other neighborhoods, like Clam Point and Bowdoin-Geneva. The population largely consists of renters, many of whom are living in housing built before 1939.

“Although VietAID has developed multiple affordable housing over the past several years, the demand among low-income people for high quality housing with stable, affordable rents in Fields Corner increasingly outpaces supply,” the report says. “VietAID’s leadership in housing development will be crucial to meeting this need, and for helping low-income renters gain a foothold in an increasingly unaffordable neighborhood.”

Absentee landlords are a “significant barrier” to quality housing, the report says, recommending that local organizations work to organize tenants and landlords, and partner with the city’s code enforcement agency to ensure safe and healthy homes.

As for new affordable housing, the report points to five potential sites that could be scooped up: 181-183 Bowdoin St., 191-195 Bowdoin St., 29 Robison St., 174-178 Adams St., and 223-233 Freeport St., which is a parking lot owned by the local union, IBEW 103.

“Whether the particular sites we have profiled become housing or not, our analysis clearly shows that there are parcels in the area that are currently vacant or severely underused and could be acquired and developed in the near term,” the report says. “While developing housing is a lengthy, complex process, VietAID’s existing capacity in development and the availability of suitable sites suggests that the process of planning new development could begin immediately.”

The report also focuses on Fields Corner’s commercial sector, which has 150 to 200 businesses, ranging from small storefronts to the shopping center anchored by CW Price, a clothing retailer. But the report notes that 12.5 percent of the available 500,000 square feet in the district is vacant. The figure adds up to 30 empty storefronts and second-floor office spaces. Twelve of those spaces are not in “rentable condition” and landlords are asking “unrealistic rents,” the report says.

The report recommended that local organizations provide assistance to small businesses, and attempt to directly lease the spaces, turning them around and renting them to retailers. The MIT report outlined three spaces as priorities: The former Emerald Isle bar, the former Fields Corner Bakery, and the two empty storefronts next to a Domino’s and a liquor store on Adams Street.

The report, put together by James Buckley and Patricia Costa of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, also calls for the MBTA station in the heart of the neighborhood to be made more pedestrian-friendly.

Nam Pham, executive director of VietAID, said new affordable housing will continue to be a top priority for his organization because there is such a “great need” for it. He also expressed hope for new public monuments and updated local murals. “We want Fields Corner to be a destination for both business and culture,” he said in an e-mail.

Public safety is also a concern, said Aspasia Xypolia, who also works at VietAID. “For anything to happen, crime has to be addressed.”

The neighborhood organizations that met last week to discuss the report are expected to meet again in January to continue plotting the neighborhood’s future, assess priorities, and try to determine how they can work together.

“It should be a collective effort,” Xypolia said.