Dorchester's Main Street, 2008: For avenue steeped in transition, more changes to come

On Dorchester Avenue, there are signs of change and of changes to come.

Near St. Mark's Church, at the Dot2Dot Café, a family sits down for an early breakfast with a laptop on the table, while the air ripens with the smell of a bacon and mushroom quiche in the oven.

In Fields Corner, at Dippin' Donuts, a racially mixed clientele coils around the counter, while a new mixed-use development takes shape across the street.

At the new six-story housing development near Ashmont Station, first-floor windows signal the approach of new businesses, including a bank and an Italian restaurant.

North of Fields Corner, the familiar look of brick, wood, and cement gives way to marble and granite- the gleaming face of growing investment by Vietnamese Americans.

And while Nash's Pub makes the transition from Irish pub to a sports lounge and bar, Irish immigrants in green and blue jerseys gather at the Banshee to watch an Ulster Gaelic football championship game between Fermanagh and Monaghan.

Just a few doors from the Banshee, an old printing press turns into a loft development, including a roof deck, kitchens with granite counters, and floors made of bamboo or polished concrete.

Across the avenue, there's still a Tom English Tavern, but with a new façade and larger windows. On the same block, a new business, Diallo's Fashion and Hairbraiding, offers trendy clothes for teens. And, even though it's Sunday, a city employee in an orange vest is out front sweeping the sidewalk and the gutter.

The avenue still has throwbacks to earlier times- the automotive businesses, the bait and tackle shop, and the blank stare of metal grates. The mix of businesses can border on the bewildering - within one block, a Dunkin' Donuts, a beauty supply store, and a psychic offering spiritual help; and within another, an Indian restaurant, followed by Chinese take-out at the Lucky Café, Venice Pizza, and the Harp & Bard. But the MBTA stations on the avenue that used to be known for grime and neglect are encouraging new development. And the commercial spaces that used to turn their back on the neighborhood are opening up to customers through large windows and an eagerness to connect.

* Even before she opened the Dot2Dot Café, Karen Henry-Garrett was making connections in the St. Mark's Area neighborhood for her catering business. Before coming to the United States, she ran a catering business in a racially mixed section of London. And after a neighbor found out another establishment on the avenue, the Dorchester Community Center for the Visual Arts ("DotArt"), was planning a fund- raiser, Henry-Garrett did the catering.

Morning customers find her business on the sunny side of the avenue, with large windows, the warm sheen of hardwood floors, and table tops made of beech. The walls are a cool shade of dill pickle and crimson, and they're hung with abstract canvases by painters who studied at DotArt.

"I really didn't want it to be a fortress," said Henry-Garrett. "I really wanted people to feel that they all could come in, and that they should come in."

Henry-Garrett says the peak crowd can usually be found at Sunday brunch, but she adds there are customers dropping in, sometimes for meetings, throughout the day. She has been making pitches to new customers, appealing to teachers and working with health centers to bring in some of the rising numbers of people who get around the avenue on bikes. To keep up with her catering business, she works the counter and the kitchen wearing a blue tooth ("I can keep cooking while I'm talking," she explains).

And when she thought of a name for the business, Dorchester Avenue and Dorchester were only a start.

"I also like the connection - dot-to-dot," she said, "joining the dots, bringing people together."

* At Peabody Square, the connection is smart growth: 116 units of new housing right next to an Ashmont Station that's being completely rebuilt. The housing development, known as "The Carruth," will have 10,000 square feet of retail space at street level. That includes a branch of Wainwright Bank, as well as a new office for the St. Mark's Area Main Street program. Helping to make the project possible were financing from MassHousing and state money for "transit-oriented" development.

"It's going to bring things to this neighborhood that we haven't had in a long time, or maybe never," says the executive director of the Main Street program, Dan Larner.

Most of the land taken up by the development is space that used to lie between Dorchester Avenue and the waiting areas for buses.

"It was a wasteland. It was huge," said Larner. "It was just creating this huge hole in the avenue where nothing was going on. Now it's a focal part of the neighborhood."

With the housing and businesses at The Carruth, and classes at the new home of the Mass. Affordable Housing Alliance, Larner expects the part of the avenue near Peabody Square will have more foot traffic, even after the evening commute.

"You'll have a lot more people who are not just hanging out, but going in and out of their home," he said. "It'll be much more a neighborhood now - not just a place where people get off and head home."

Even before work started on The Carruth, there was another transformation in Peabody Square, where a bar, the Ashmont Grille, was redeveloped as a bistro with a similar name ("Ashmont Grill"), a very different menu - and larger windows.

"Now, the idea is to open up, so people can see out as well as in," said Larner.

"There's a lot that's going on along the avenue," he said, "and it's great to have a window out to that."

* The smart growth project in Fields Corner is the 1460 House, which is being developed by the non-profit Viet-AID, with help from state and city agencies, and the Mass. Housing Partnership. Taking shape on the avenue just north of the Red Line, the four-story building will have 43 units of affordable rental housing and five commercial units at street level. In the past, the site was known for a bar called Mickey's and a building that hung back from the avenue - next to a claustrophobic walkway the led from the avenue to Adams street.

The executive director of the Fields Corner Main Street program, Evelyn Darling, says the new building will "bring back more of a sense of a business district," along with a wider and less intimidating passage to Adams Street.

"It fills in a hole that was there," says Darling.

Fields Corner has two other recent changes already completed: the make-over of the mall at Park Street, between Dorchester Avenue and Geneva Avenue, and the new Red Line station. While the old station was known for grime and pigeon droppings, the new station is more open to sunlight and, in Darling's words, "really welcoming."

The mall has also recovered from the closing of America's Food Basket less than three years ago. Since that time, the mall has a gotten a repaved parking area and a new clothing store, A.J. Wright.

"I know people in the community were very excited when that store opened," said Darling. "There was a need here in the community that wasn't being met."

Another change in appearance comes from the regular sweeping of sidewalks and gutters, sometimes by employees of the city's Dept. of Public Works, sometimes by private businesses, and even Viet-AID. The Main Street program did its part by giving out brooms and dustpans to 110 businesses, as part of a campaign called "Don't Spot the Dot."

"We're thrilled when people sweep up in front of their storefronts," said Darling. That's one of the messages we're trying to get across in our campaign."

The Main Street program and Viet-AID also plan a future project with Historic Boston. But Main Street program directors have struggled to persuade businesses to think differently about another historic feature: metal grates on storefronts. A reminder of concerns over theft and vandalism, many of the grates remain closed, even on weekdays past nine in the morning.

"It gives the impression of a very dangerous place," says Darling. "I think in some cases the perception is worse than the reality. It doesn't allow people to see what the store is."

More recently, some businesses have been using less noticeable mesh grates. And some new businesses, such as the Dot2Dot Café and the D'Benny Sub Shop, do without grates altogether.

* Residents and businesses are looking forward to relief from traffic problems that spurred creation of a community task force and an action plan by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). On weekdays, traffic bunches up during peak hours at such as Fields Corner and the intersections with Freeport Street and Hancock Street, also known as "Glover's Corner." Even on a Sunday afternoon, traffic movement through Glover's Corner manages to be slow, abrupt, and haphazard all at the same time.

The BRA action plan calls for improvements to ease traffic flow and to make the avenue less hazardous and more welcoming for pedestrians. Among the goals are safer ways to cross the multiple intersection at Peabody Square, and the extension of a traffic island at the intersection of Adams Street to create a plaza.

Also trying to change the traffic mix on the avenue is DotBike. The group has been organizing rides and trying to make sure plans for the avenue include bike racks. The street could hardly be mistaken for Mass. Avenue in Cambridge, but it's no longer unusual to see bike riders on the avenue, even with green and orange plastic shopping bags slung on the handle-bars.

Though new housing developments can add more traffic, they're also being marketed for their proximity to the Red Line. That even applies to the 60-units in the DNA Lofts at Dorchester Avenue and Crescent Avenue, a few blocks from JFK/UMass Station. Wishfully or not, the developers are betting on a different way of viewing the avenue from the roof deck or the oversized double-pane windows: "great views, proximity to public transportation, the beach and area restaurants."

Just as the loft developers met with neighborhood opposition when they tried to include commercial use at street level, the granite that appeals to buyers in a new kitchen has aroused mixed feelings when used by Vietnamese-American developers on the façades of store blocks.

The executive director of Viet-AID, Hiep Chu, says the material that strikes many as out of character with New England is associated by Asians with prestige.

"It's upscale, it's luxury," he said.

And the granite face of the Maxim Pharmacy is no more unusual than what used to be at the same location, when the earlier site of Fields Corner Auto Glass had angle-parked van on the roof (back in the days when another business along the avenue drew attention with a gigantic muffler tilting over the sidewalk).

Despite the exteriors, some businesses developed by the Vietnamese-American community, according to Chu, have been attracting a diverse clientele - especially the restaurants and food markets. And he confirms that Vietnamese-Americans are part of the mix at other businesses, such as the Blarney Stone.

At a time when residential streets a few blocks away have been hard hit by the collapse of the housing bubble, Chu sees investors from the Vietnamese community in a gold rush for the avenue's commercial property.

"We are talking about a big financial investment by Vietnamese companies," said Chu. "You're talking about $20 million in land transactions in the past three or four years."

According to Chu, the transactions along the avenue take place while the exodus of some Vietnamese-American families has tapered off or even been reversed. By staying in Dorchester, he said, younger generations can be closer to elders, who might want to be near churches, temples, and human services.

For the years ahead, Chu predicts more foot traffic around the avenue, and more acquisitions by investors from the Vietnamese-American community.

"People see the value of it. They're willing to pay more," he said. "And all the foreclosures that are going on - it really has no effect on the commercial properties on Dorchester Avenue."