Corcoran Jennison Companies hosted the first public meeting for residents last week to discuss plans to redevelop nearly 30 acres of land on Columbia Point into a mixed-use retail and residential project that could represent a $1 billion investment.
The site is currently home to the Bayside Expo Center, a conference facility whose business has been impacted drastically since last summer, when a change in state law allowed the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston to host the regional trade shows that provided Bayside with its most lucrative clients.
"We find ourselves in a situation where we must change up, we must do something different," said Catherine O'Neill, a spokeswoman for Corcoran Jennison Companies, at last week's meeting.
Corcoran Jennison's new pitch is a massive mixed-use development destination. A broad, preliminary vision for the site includes the potential for three large retailers along Mt. Vernon Street, a mix of ground-level restaurants and shops and upper level residences on a grid of urban streets at the center of the property, and open space and residential units along the waterfront.
To oversee the creation of a final plan, Corcoran Jennison has hired Street-Works, a national urban design firm. Richard Heapes, principal of Street-Works, cited previous projects his company has overseen - a 28-acre project in Boca Raton, Florida and redevelopment of a six-block swath in Bethesda, Maryland - as evidence of their preparedness to facilitate a dense urban project on this scale.
"There is not one thing I'm going to show you or talk about that we haven't done somewhere else," said Heapes. "This is not a grand experiment."
Heapes said that the alternative to a creative mixed-use redevelopment would be to sell or lease the property to one or several 'big-box' retailers, chain corporations envious of the site's proximity to I-93 and the Red Line.
That, said Heapes, would be a tragedy.
A major challenge to the project will be integrating the massive development into surrounding infrastructure. Many community leaders at the meeting last week asked if notoriously tricky streets that surround the Bayside site - the oft-flooded Morrissey Boulevard, and chronically congested Kosciuszko Circle - might be redesigned to meet the needs of a development that would draw a great deal of traffic.
"There's a lot of infrastructure between our site and the T that needs to be addressed," said Heapes.
Another challenge will be building around four existing structures on the site that will remain. The Bayside office center and the Doubletree hotel will be integrated into the new project. And the Boston Teacher's Union property and an odor control facility under construction behind the State Police barracks on Day Boulevard are not owned by Corcoran Jennison Companies, meaning that their fate is uncertain.
Jim Gribaudo of Corcoran Jennison Companies said at the meeting that the company was hoping to stop construction of the odor control facility, potentially with the support of area residents.
"We've talked with [the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] and they are not interested in working with us, they feel they are too far along in the project," said Gribaudo. "We've hired consultants to take a look and make sure the location is technically correct. If not, we'd like to be back with the community to talk with the state about getting them in the right direction in terms of what they are doing.
The odor control facility is at one end of a massive tunnel project currently under construction by the MWRA to hold storm water from flooding into Boston Harbor during heavy rains. The project has been under development for years, and at least one civic activist said he was not pleased that Corcoran Jennison is now protesting the facility.
"I found it to be kind of disingenuous because a lot of the people there don't really know what that's all about and worked for many years to come up with that site as opposed to anywhere else," said Paul Nutting, a member and past-president of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association who was at the meeting last week. "I didn't like the fact that it took ten minutes to explain something we have come to an agreement on after many years and many meetings, that they would come in and try to stop it or move it. It's well beyond the eleventh hour."
While many attendees praised the plan as an opportunity to bring a potentially revitalizing project to the neighborhood's waterfront and bring new amenities of interest to current residents to Dorchester, some residents and merchants had concerns. In particular, the manager of the Shaw's across Morrissey Boulevard spoke in opposition to preliminary plan to have a market anchor the mid-sized retail spaces envisioned for Mt Vernon Street.
"It doesn't make sense to bring in a competing supermarket when we could be clued in as a part of the redevelopment and bring in additional, complementary services rather than cannibalize and hurt somebody that's been here for ten years," said Robert Davenport, manager of the Shaw's.
Corcoran Jennison officials have indicated that they plan to spend the summer months planning aggressively, in the hopes of having a preliminary concept ready to begin the permitting process in September.
As that process continues, O'Neill said another public meeting will be held before the end of the summer.