DSNI seeking best use for its Uphams Corner bank building

The Citizens Bank building at 572 Columbia Rd. Source: Google Images

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) will soon begin seeking input into the future of a prominent 1930s Uphams Corner bank building that the non-profit’s land trust acquired last spring.

Dudley Neighbors Incorporated (DNI) land trust, a non-profit under the DSNI umbrella, purchased three Uphams Corner parcels that were deeded together – the Citizens Bank building at 572 Columbia Rd., a small adjacent parking lot, and a larger parking lot across the street next to Cushing Avenue – in April for $1 million.

Tony Hernandez, director of DNI, said the community group plans to begin hosting public meetings in late September or early October to solicit ideas for the bank site’s best use.

“The result of process should help me being able to weave together an RFP,” he said. “It will brush itself out via conversations we have with local residents, local businesses, and other community organizing partners in the neighborhood.”

Uphams Corner has long been on DSNI’s radar, Hernandez said. The city notes it as a hub for future growth in its 2030 master plan.

“We were hearing a lot about the Uphams Corner area undergoing a lot of change,” he said. “As a community land trust, we wanted an opportunity to figure out how we could be at the table for that upcoming change.”

The bank building rose on the block during the growth of Uphams Corner’s modern business community. According to Historic Boston, the Art Moderne-style structure was built to house the Dorchester Savings Bank in 1930.

“We were hearing rumblings that the building was going to be sold,” Hernandez said. DNI followed up on the rumors and was approved for financing through the city’s acquisition fund.

He expects the group to continue with a “two-fold conversation: Figure out what we’d like to do, DNI and DSNI, but also collaborating with the city.” The result, he said, should be a “cohesive approach to what the neighborhood looks like and not repeating, say, a building across the street.”

DNI’s method of securing the rights to a building and associated land is a “historic” approach for a community land trust, Hernandez said. The trust maintains affordable housing and community space within its radius, but this type of project is unusual.

Their 10,570-square foot parking lot beside Cushing Avenue adjoins another classic bank building, the city- controlled 6,300-square foot building at 555 Columbia Rd. that was home in 1917 to the Dorchester Trust Company, then the First National Bank of Boston, and most recently Bank of America.

Mayor Martin Walsh announced in July that the building will be the site of a new, $18 million branch of the Boston Public Library.

Hernandez said that DNI is in talks about possibly passing over the Cushing Avenue parking lot to the city’s control. “My hands are full enough with the building,” he said. “Given the city has an idea what to do with the other lot, it’s a relationship where we’re looking to help each other out.”

For now, DNI and DSNI are focused on their bank building and lot next door. Nothing is etched in stone, Hernandez noted, so locals will have the opportunity to offer their visions for the space.

Some have pitched adding to the structure to accommodate affordable units, although that is subject to historical designations. The main bank vault is “so embedded in the structure” that they might consider some creative allowance of community space to repurpose it.

It is early, yet, Hernandez said, but owning the property gives DNI a rare bit of leverage in deciding its best use. He cited a board member as saying that nonprofits often struggle to have a seat at the table in shaping their community. This is different, the member said. Although the process will likely involve the same groups and discussions, “we’re not sitting at the table; we own the table.”