August 27, 2015
Response to the proposal for a South Bay Town Center was mixed and vigorous last Tuesday at a Boston Redevelopment Authority-sponsored forum where the project’s organizers laid down their cards in front of residents, business owners, and investors.
Raul Duverge of the BRA guided the meeting as Keith Hague, the director of pre-construction for Edens, the company that owns the current South Bay Mall and adjacent parcels of land intended to make up the South Bay Town Center, discussed the project.
While many attendees expressed cautious support for the project, which would expand the Mall by almost 10 acres of land near Dorchester’s northern edge, some pushed against what they saw as a potentially inconvenient combination of roadways, parking structures, surrounding residences, and retail space.
“People didn’t raise anything that wasn’t expected,” Duverge told the Reporter on Friday. The public’s transportation concerns have been at the forefront throughout the process so far, he said.
Three brothers who are investors in the project, Pawel Wojcik, 37; Jan Wojcik, 31; and Peter Wojcik, 26, took stock of the presentation, which included a virtual walk through of the site. While in general “it’s good to see a project like this come to the area,” Peter said, his brother Jan suggested that the center “needed a lot more green space” and allotted areas where residents can hang out, rather than being limited to relaxing in the same places as consumers at the center.
During the forum, organizers emphasized that the project is in early stages yet and has already been modified to reflect some public concern. In March, they attended a number of community meetings to help them gauge public response. The public comment period on the current proposal ends on Sept. 8, but as further paperwork is filed and additional comment periods open, more meetings are anticipated, Duverge said.
The initial plan, officially proposed by Edens in February, has been downsized slightly over the following months. What began as 115,000 square feet of commercial and retail space is now 113,000 square feet; a proposed hotel will host about 130 rooms, not 200; and the plan for some 500 units of multi-family housing has been downsized to 475 units.
Overall, the 429,267-square foot development to the south of the existing mall property will contain several six-story structures, including residences, retail locations, and two parking garages. Hague confirmed Wednesday that a 12-screen cinema will be managed by AMC.
Conversation sparked by a few of the 30 or so resident attendees became heated, first over the logistics of traffic patterns and then over the sheer number of new visitors who might enter the area with the draw of a movie theater and new restaurants.
This sort of contention that has arisen in some of the public meetings may be an off-kilter but encouraging sign, said Dana Whiteside, deputy director of community economic development with the BRA. “I like to think of it as reflective of the passion of the community,” he said.
The biggest concerns raised addressed connections to the already highly trafficked roads that form the boundary of the proposed center. Cars will pass through the area via a combination of one- and two-way roads meeting at a cul-de-sac in front of the proposed hotel and continuing on. Large pedestrian walkways frame roads for which exact specifications have not been settled.
“What we really want to do is design this great pedestrian Main Street,” Hague said. He added that they would like to have the option to shut down portions of the area for street festivals or other events.
Developers say they want a controlled, safe traffic flow through the center. Robert Michaud of MDM Transportation Consultants walked attendees through the traffic grid, which would not allow direct access from the South Bay Mall to the always-congested Boston Street, “breaking the dam, so to speak.”
Traffic issues notwithstanding, both organizers and attendees noted the decline of residents using cars, mostly millennials and older residents. Organizers say they are committed to offering rental/purchase agreements that are unbundled from the cost of a parking space.
This encouraged Sean Wheeler, 46, of Ashmont.
“I’m really hoping that developers start thinking ahead toward the future,” he said afterward.
Today, the “project area” is a rough bunch of 10 largely vacant parcels of commercial/industrial land and surface parking lots, where, Hague said, residents and police report car-jackings, assaults, drug-use, and solicitation. “When there are vacancies like this ... it just breeds these kinds of activities,” he said. Construction and use of a “thriving” center would enrich the area, he added, making it safer and cleaner for the residents nearby.
Wheeler agreed, noting, “A town center-style area around here means I would be more likely to spend an evening there, rather than in South Boston.”