A pivotal Uphams Corner property became embroiled in a fast-moving controversy last week after neighbors learned that the city of Boston planned to convert a now-dormant industrial site into a Public Works storage yard. The news prompted outrage and fast action from local stakeholders, who have targeted the three-acre parcel once occupied by the Maxwell Box Company as a “lynchpin” redevelopment project along the Fairmount commuter rail corridor.
The 120,000-square foot property — which sits adjacent to the Uphams Corner station on the Fairmount Line— is today a sprawling warren of run-down warehouses. But its proximity to the commuter rail stop makes it a prime location for so-called “transit-oriented development.” The site is owned by the city of Boston, which took control of it in 2010 after a protracted standoff with the previous owner over unpaid taxes.
A working advisory group (WAG) appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino and managed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority has been working for the last year and a half on redevelopment ideas for the site and other targeted parcels near the corridor. All of the possible scenarios explored so far include building a mix of housing and commercial or light industrial uses on the Maxwell site. None of the scenarios have envisioned the property’s use as a city street light depot— an idea that emerged suddenly last Wednesday at a meeting of the Uphams Corner WAG.
Michael Galvin, the city’s Chief of Basic Services, told the Reporter last Friday that the Maxwell site was needed to house the street light division because an agreement with the MBTA was prompting the city to move from its longtime Public Works yard next to Arborway station in Forest Hills. Galvin said he had reviewed other city-owned sites across the city, but only the Maxwell property was suitable for the street light division and its 27 trucks and a stockpile of replacement poles.
“It’s in an industrial area. I had my folks put together a rendition of what we’d need for the pole yard and how it would lay out,” said Galvin. “I have the wherewithal to design it,” he said, adding that construction would start next summer “once capital budgets are approved.” A temporary home for the street pole division would still need to be found in the interim, he said.
News of the DPW plan first emerged at a meeting of the WAG on Wednesday night in Uphams Corner and prompted an immediate, negative response from the group. In a letter drafted and sent to Mayor Menino on Friday, the group’s co-chairs, Christopher Jones and Max McCarthy, expressed “serious concerns about lack of communication about plans for the site, especially with reports that the building will be demolished in the fall.” They asked the mayor to meet with them to advance the “timely development of the Maxwell Building, based on the neighborhood’s vision.”
On Monday, a spokesperson for Menino said that the mayor “agrees” that the Maxwell site should be redeveloped as a “transit-oriented development”— a strong indication that Menino will put the brakes on the Public Works plan. Without specifically rejecting the street light warehouse idea, the mayor’s spokesperson, Dorothy Joyce, said that the mayor wants to move in a different direction.
“The mayor has been briefed on the Maxwell property and he agrees that it’s going to be a better site for transit-oriented redevelopment,” Joyce told the Reporter. “He’s considering doing an RFP (request for proposals) for possible developers [for the site].”
The shift was welcome news to members of the WAG and other stakeholders who were alarmed by the unexpected news last week.
John Barros, a community activist living in Uphams Corner who is a candidate for mayor, said he was pleased to hear about the administration’s apparent reversal. “It’s progress,” he said. “We’re heading in the right direction. I’m glad it came to the mayor’s attention.”
The original decision to store street poles and trucks offered up a “low return use” for the site, Barros said. “When I first heard about it, it was disappointing.”
Joan Tighe, a member of the WAG— called the city’s idea to use the site for its pole division “outrageous.” “The WAG has identified five priority projects with our consultants and Maxwell is the top one,” said Tighe, who lives in close proximity to the property and runs the Eastman-Elder Neighborhood Association. “We felt it best meets the goal of economic development to have it re-developed with light industrial, along with new housing that would back up behind the Groom-Humphrey community that is there. This was a feasible plan that could work.”
Tighe says that putting a permanent city of Boston street light warehouse on the property would be “totally contradictory” to what local stakeholders want. “It’s very bad,” she said. “It is a totally passive use, it brings nothing of benefit to neighborhood and it undercuts the integrity of the entire Fairmount-Indigo planning process.”
A report commissioned by the Uphams Corner Fairmount WAG — and presented in April— identified the Maxwell site as ideal for new affordable housing, which could be facilitated by its designation as a “transit oriented development” project. A pair of redevelopment scenarios outlined by consultants from The Cecil Group outlined a series of new buildings on the site, one of which could have housed as many as 190 units of housing.
The property had been in distress well before the city ultimately seized control in 2010. Prior to the foreclosure, the Maxwell Box Company was embroiled in a protracted dispute with the Department of Labor and the city, which considered the company its single biggest tax debtor for many years.
Jeanne DuBois , the executive director of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (EDC), said that the Maxwell site and the nearby Leon Electric building— a more high profile vacant warehouse on Dudley Street that abuts the Uphams Corner T station— are both priority targets now that the commuter rail line has become a more viable artery into and out of the city. In July, the MBTA opened three new commuter rail stops, including one in Newmarket next to South Bay, and the agency has lowered fares to $2 per ride while sharply increasing the number of trains each weekday.
“If both of those projects are mixed-used, mixed-income, I think it would be a tremendous shot in the arm for the neighborhood,” said DuBois.