Making Peabody Square an upbeat gathering place

Inside the Flat Black coffee shop in Peabody Square, a young man quietly taps away on his laptop. Across the street and outside of a pizza shop on Dorchester Ave., several teens huddle in the entrance, watching cars make their way through the under-construction intersection and waiting out a mid-afternoon thunderstorm to pass through. At the Ashmont MBTA station nearby, dozens of people standing under an unfinished roof wait for buses heading to Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan.

Dozens more will soon stream out of the station on their way home from work. And five days from that Tuesday afternoon, hundreds more will fill the area to watch the Dorchester Day parade.

What parade watchers will also witness, particularly those who do not travel to Peabody Square often or usually speed on through, is another stage in the slow and gradual evolution of an area that has seen the investment of over $100 million through the overhaul of the Ashmont MBTA station, the Carruth condo building across from the station, and the $16.5 million reconstruction of Dorchester Avenue, stretching from Peabody Square to Andrew Square in South Boston.

“It’s just unbelievable how much better it looks,” said Nick Calos, manager of Wainwright Bank, while looking out his office window at Ashmont station, which remains under construction.

Calos, whose branch shares space with Flat Black coffee shop on the first floor of the Carruth building, grew up in Dorchester and his father was a firefighter in Engine 18. “It’s exciting to see the new Peabody Square coming together,” he said.

In a 2003 Dorchester Reporter write-up, the area was dubbed a “no man’s land,” because of the way it splinters in terms of civic groups, parishes and the local politicians representing it. It was named for Colonel Oliver Peabody, an investment banker who had helped to shape the neighborhood, and his wife Mary Lothrop Peabody in 1893 by the Boston City Council.

Now, overhaul supporters say, the area is turning once again into a place people are gravitating towards. “That’s what we want,” says Dan Larner, the executive director of the St. Mark’s Area Main Streets, a nonprofit seeking to revitalize the area. “And that’s what we see.”

The Flat Black coffee shop first moved into Peabody Square in 2008, after opening an original Lower Mills shop in 2003 and one in the Financial District in 2005. This week it expanded its hours, closing at 7 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. to attract more of the after-work crowd.

“Since we opened to now, business has been improving month to month,” said Jennifer House, the café’s co-founder.

She hopes to add a patio – to give the neighborhood more of a “European touch” – and wading through the paperwork required to make it happen. “Hopefully this summer there’ll be some outdoor seating,” she said.

Vince Droser, vice president for development for Trinity Financial, which owns the six-story Carruth building, called the nonprofit “the ones who really drove the train on this” change and investment in Peabody Square.

Indeed, the nonprofit received a vote of confidence last month when Winn Residential and CWC Builders joined Trinity Financial in becoming corporate sponsors and committing to the Main Streets group $15,000 each over five years for a total of $45,000.

“There’s a lot of money going in there,” Larner said of the $100 million investment. “The money is great, but it’s the product that that money creates and all the people who are behind that money.”
He said the revamping of Peabody Square came through meetings with community members. “It was literally a blank slate when we started,” Larner said. “We didn’t go in there suggesting anything.”
Then he pointed to Ashmont MBTA station, which is expected to be completed sometime next year and said, “We wouldn’t have this $50 million station if we didn’t have people advocating for it several years.”

The changes to Peabody Square through the Dorchester Ave. project are expected to be done sooner: this fall. “That’s going to be a big change. It’s going to be a much safer intersection,” Larner said, referring to the intersection of Dorchester Ave., Ashmont St., and Talbot Ave. “It’s almost you have to drive into oncoming traffic before you can turn because of the way the Talbot Ave. intersection comes in,” he said, explaining the current set-up.

Another change is the Tedeschi’s store supplanting the Store24, which neighbors often complained drew crime. The new owners are in the middle of an exterior renovation and having security guards on patrol several nights a week. “That’s going to make a difference as well,” Larner said.

A farmer’s market— which opened last year across from the Carruth building at the Odwin Learning Center— will return in a new location this year. The Friday afternoon produce sale will be held each Friday — starting July 9 — at the new plaza at the northern end of the T station adjacent to Peabody Square. The market will be open each Friday from 3-7 p.m. through the end of October.