You may have to go back to the 19th century to find a time of more growth and bricks-and-mortar change in the historic village of Lower Mills. With a flurry of re-development projects already underway - and more potential sales on the near horizon - Lower Mills is on the verge of transformation unseen, perhaps, since the lifetime of Walter Baker, the chocolate magnate whose factory came to define the riverside village.
Baker's namesake factory closed its doors in the 1960s and Carney Hospital - which opened in 1953 - has driven the local economy for the last half-century. The decades-long process of re-developing Baker's empty red-brick campus has been maddeningly slow at times. But that gradual transformation from a post-industrial backwater to a vibrant, urban crossroads is finally speeding up.
At this writing, you need two hands to count the number of significant properties  that are either under construction, in the re-development pipeline or on the market - all within two blocks of Pierce Square, the little-used name for the crossroads of Dot Ave. and Washington Street, just above the falls.
"At a time when everyone else seems to be struggling a bit, we're thriving," says lifelong Lower Mills resident Mike Mackan, who serves on the executive board of the local civic association. "It's really vibrant in Lower Mills right now."
Boosters say that the construction boom - and the promise of new housing units and dining amenities - is the fruit of dogged preservation of the village's historic qualities through the post-confection years. Recent investments in public amenities - including the popular Neponset Greenway trail and the MBTA's Mattapan trolley line - have been critical, as have public-private efforts to keep another key public space - Dorchester Park - clean and safe. Even the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which has struggled with parish closures elsewhere in the city, is helping by pumping new funds into a modernization of St. Gregory's school, whose Dorchester Avenue buildings will serve as a campus of a new, neighborhood-wide academy, set to open this fall. Another private investment has helped set the tone too: Shaw's supermarket, carved out of an old Baker warehouse along River Street in 2002, now bustles within steps of the Dot Ave. business district.
Much of the latest excitement on the Boston side of the Neponset is driven by unexpected news of commercial developments in Milton. Just over the Roper Bridge, a development team led by Milton attorney Ned Corcoran is just weeks away from breaking ground on a major project at 2 Adams St. The two-phase development will restore two aging, wooden mill buildings that sit along the river's edge, converting them into a total of seven condo units and restoring a picturesque, but precarious wooden footbridge that now hangs above the bubbling waters.
Next door, a five-story brick building will rise from what is now a cracked-asphalt parking lot used by Extra Space Storage. The mixed-use building, tucked in next to the bike trail and trolley tracks, will house 14 additional condos on three floors, an office for UMass-Boston's environmental studies department and a restaurant. Corcoran says that the 134 seat eatery -- which has not yet been finalized - would likely emulate popular neighborhood haunts like the Ashmont Grill or Blarney Stone.
"It's a beautiful, new brick building," says Corcoran, who met with civic leaders from Lower Mills last year as a courtesy, even though all of his permitting requirements must be heard by Milton town leaders.
"It's a combination of the traditional and some modern fringes around the edges," Corcoran says. "It fits, but it also has some unique characteristics."
Corcoran says that the process of acquiring a liquor license for the eatery is a matter currently before the state Legislature, which must approve any such license for the town of Milton by statute. The measure was approved at Milton's annual Town Meeting last year.
Corcoran - who will go before Milton's board of appeals later this month for final approvals for the new building - believes that work could begin by July 2008.
Across the trolley tracks, also in Milton, another new restaurant will be outfitted this year in the ground floor of Milton Landing, the elegant condo complex that is perched on the river at Wharf Street, where an ice cream warehouse once stood until it was destroyed by fire in 1998. Milton officials have green-lighted a proposal by a team of restauranteurs who own and manage a popular Needham enterprise known as Blue on Highland. With their liquor and victualers licenses already in hand, this new, white-tablecloth eatery should be open by the fall of 2008.
John Collings, who will manage the as-yet-unnamed restaurant, says the group hopes to begin work at the space later this month. The restaurant will feature 97 seats inside - with a mix of tables and booths - and an additional 40 seats available seasonally on an outdoor patio.
"We will be a fine dining destination," said Collings. "It's probably going to have some Mediterranean influence, but the menu - as of now - has not been finalized."
Collings is presently the co-owner and manager of Blue on Highland, a bistro-styled restaurant that has won critical acclaim. Like the Milton restaurant, it is co-owned by Collings, Rod and Catherine Walkey and Matt Sullivan.
The group "instantly fell in love with" the Milton Landing location, Collings says.
"We kept hearing the same thing over and over again, that the city is really yearning for a nice restaurant to enjoy. People who live there are really proud of their town and are missing something. We were excited at the opportunity to bring that in."
As the latest Milton projects percolate, the Boston side is similarly buzzing with news of budding developments, some definitive and others murkier.
On River Street, the newly-completed, 62-unit Schoolhouse Condominiums - which include a restored 19th century landmark, the Israel Stoughton school - are now on the market. Around the corner, again at the river's edge, Winn Development is deep into construction work to bring up to 71 units of housing online in the long-delayed second phase of the Baker Square development. The project, which involves the gut-rehab of the waterfront Baker Mill building, could be ready for occupancy by the fall, according to longtime Baker Square resident Terry Dolan. The units will initially be available as rentals with the intent of shifting to a condo-ownership model after five years.
"They are moving right along, slightly ahead of schedule and they expect to begin marketing in late spring," said Dolan.
Other projects could prove more controversial. A developer's proposal to tear down a house at 1203 Adams - that most recently housed the former Kiley Catering company - to make room for a new Dunkin' Donuts with a drive-thru encountered tough resistance at the local civic group when it emerged in 2006.
Another, more recent proposal - this one introduced by Spukies n' Pizza owner Ted Retzos - involves a now-empty Lil' Peach convenience store on Washington Street. Retzos is due to present his vision for the store to the Lower Mills Civic Association (Tuesday, April 15,7:30 p.m., St. Gregory's auditorium), but has told the Reporter that he would like to re-cast the old grocery quick-stop as a more upscale food mart with beer and wine for sale. Such a proposal is likely to get mixed reviews in a city in which mixing milk, bread and six-packs of beer is frowned upon by regulators.
Diagonally across the street, the Reporter has confirmed that Molloy's, a family-run funeral home on Washington Street, is for sale, along with several adjacent parcels controlled by the Molloy family. Together, the Molloy properties - which include two residential buildings that front on Washington Street - total more than 50,000 square feet of real estate. Dan Molloy, who runs the funeral home, has said that there is no buyer yet.
Four years ago, Molloy's next-door neighbor - the Dolan Funeral Home - advanced and then withdrew a plan to sell their properties to a developer for the Walgreen's Drug Store chain. The plan came under intense scrutiny from neighborhood civic leaders, who say such a large retailer would be a poor fit in the village.
Activists like Mike Mackan are already girding for a similar scenario if the huge Molloy lots are sought by Walgreen's or another chain store.
"It would destroy the character to have a chain store there," Mackan says. "The architectural design that we've been able to preserve is a big part of Lower Mills' success. We're always willing to listen to a proposal. We've learned that by having open communication that you can have winners on all sides."
Another pending sale that is being closely watched is that of Donovan's Village, a restaurant and pub in the heart of the business district that has been on the market for several years. Word is rampant in the village that owners Matthew and Veronica Donovan are close to a deal to sell the restaurant-bar to a buyer eager to renovate the business, something that the Reporter has confirmed with multiple sources.
Ice Creamsmith co-owner Robyn Mabel, who walks each day to her popular Dot Ave. parlor from her Mattapan home, says that merchants in Lower Mills are generally pleased to hear of new businesses, because it helps bring in customers for everyone.
"We're always for businesses being here as opposed to vacant stores," Mabel says. "Our major concern for the last 32 years has been there's no parking."
Mabel and her husband David are active in the Lower Mills Merchants Association, which has been rejuvenated in the last two years under the leadership of Anthony Paciulli, the president of Meetinghouse Cooperative Bank. Paciulli says that more than 30 local merchants are now dues-paying members. They gather monthly to discuss common concerns, such as enforcement of the two-hour parking restriction on Dot Ave. The group has also pooled resources for holiday decorations and scholarships for local kids. Mostly, Paciulli says, the organization has been mustering strength to weigh in on zoning variances, lobby for maintenance and help beautify the district.
"We intend to be a voice," Paciulli says.
Related: A map of Lower Mills properties and projects