Main Streets likely to gain under Walsh: Eyes expansion, ‘strengthening’

The building at One Peabody Square sits at the intersection of Dorchester Avenue and Ashmont Street, All Saints Church on its left and a Tedeschi’s on its right. The squat office building that once housed a chiropractor’s office is one of several places in the area that is listed as “for rent” every time the St. Mark’s Area Main Street e-mails its newsletter. Next to the Peabody Square clock and across the street from the Ashmont MBTA station, the 2,800-square foot property is viewed by some as a missing link for an area.

“It’s one of the last pieces in that Peabody Square area that’s not been part of the large-scale changes that have happened. It’s the last piece, I think,” says Meaghan Overton, the executive director of the St. Mark’s Area Main Street program. The opportunities for the property range from residential to retail, she said. “I think there’s a lot of potential there.”

Similar properties exist across Dorchester, and they remain priorities for the Main Street program, a large part of outgoing Mayor Thomas Menino’s legacy. As mayor, Menino steadily expanded the program, which focuses on revitalizing business districts through financial and technical assistance; it now includes 20 Main Streets, including seven in Dorchester and Mattapan.

Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh told the Reporter this week that he plans to keep the program going, and “strengthen it where we can, offer assistance where we can.”

“In the campaign I talked about increasing the money to it, and that’s before we had a $50 million deficit,” Walsh said. “But it’s something I want to expand and work on strengthening.”

Some Main Street programs have a strong corporate partner, he said, pointing to Trinity Financial, a local real estate development firm, which supports the St. Mark’s Area Main Street. Fields Corner, meanwhile, doesn’t have a similar “big hook.”

Walsh suggested retaining and creating “almost a bullpen” of businesses to patch in some holes in business districts, not just in Main Street districts but all over the city.

Evelyn Darling, who heads up the Fields Corner Main Street program, says that it has helped to spur improvements that might not have otherwise happened in that village.

“It brings increased commercial activity to the district and with the case of [a Post Office] storage building, that would likely be developed into housing on the upper floors,” said “It’s more eyes on the streets, a safer neighborhood, more vitality to the street, more customers for business.”

In Fields Corner, the renovation of the MBTA station has had a “catalytic effect,” Darling said. The city and state deploying federal stimulus funds to improve Dorchester Avenue, and individual property owners rehabbing the Golden Building, giving it a cosmetic boost in 2011, were also a help.

“It’s a domino effect for the positive,” Darling said.

About a mile north, up Dorchester Avenue and through Meetinghouse Hill, Uphams Corner has its own set of buildings that the neighborhood wants to see revamped. Like Peabody Square and its proximity to an MBTA station, the Uphams Corner neighborhood has a number of buses that trundle down its streets every day, and a commuter rail station nearby.

Max McCarthy, the head of the Uphams Corner Main Street program, pointed to several priorities for his organization, including the Maxwell building, a city-owned property that was almost turned into a light pole storage facility until local activists noted it was a key development parcel for the area. McCarthy said they would like to see incoming Mayor Marty Walsh support the redevelopment of the Maxwell building as an “anchor site’ for the neighborhood.

The seven-story Leon Electric building on Dudley Street, which is privately owned, is another priority for the group.

“A successful redevelopment of the Leon building will help build better connections between the commuter rail station and the Upham’s Corner business district along Dudley Street,” McCarthy wrote in an email.

Improving the streetscape of Dudley Street is also key, he said, since businesses on the street constantly tell his group that better sidewalks and lighting are their “biggest concerns” along the stretch between Columbia Road and the commuter rail station.

The Strand Theatre, which now has a resident company in Fiddlehead Theatre, could get a new neighbor: a restaurant will move in next door, complete with outdoor seating, McCarthy said. The as-yet-unnamed restaurant is expected to open in March or April. He also noted that
the brick Masonic Hall, a four-story building at the corner of Columbia Road and Dudley Street, has “lots of potential for upper floor redevelopment, and a local property owner who is interested in partnering to help fill the upper floors and bring tenants that fit with the needs and concerns of the local community.”

The program’s continued successes will depend on the new mayor. At a forum that the Main Street programs put together at the Strand Theatre earlier this year, the mayoral candidates sounded supportive notes. And in October, the programs put together a briefing booklet for the two finalists, Walsh and City Councillor At-Large John Connolly.

The booklet outlined priorities and suggestions such as meeting with the Boston Main Street coalition within the first 100 days of taking office, promoting micro-lending, and streamlining the permitting and licensing processes. Recommendations include integrating Main Streets and Boston Redevelopment Authority reporting systems to “ensure up-to-date online vacancy information for interested businesses” and creating a “pop-up art coordinator position” at the Office of Arts and Tourism at City Hall.