2017 in development booms and transit twists

Several proposed developments and changing parcels are set to alter the Dorchester streetscape. Shown: a rendering of the 500 Talbot Ave./8 Argyle St. mixed-use proposal.

Here at the close of 2017, it is the most unsurprising of news hooks to note that the city is growing. But planning for that growth is still a scattershot process, even as the Walsh administration’s goal of 53,000 units of new housing by 2030 remains on track and major developments in Dorchester and Mattapan are slated to come online in the next few years.

On Columbia Point, there is a mix of non-binding master planning being held together by dogged civic groups; in Uphams Corner, an implementation effort is aligned with a 2030 vision for an energized arts community at a rejuvenated Strand Theatre and a new $18 million library; in Ashmont, the main street group is leading the planning; in Codman Square, a CDC is driving an effort at long-term visioning; and in Glover’s Corner, a Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) study is in play as a key element in a resident-driven neighborhood-wide game of zoning and unit-count whack-a-mole.

The year in development kicked off with Columbia Point still in an uproar over the Kraft family’s proposed stadium for a prime swath of waterfront property. Community leaders and local elected officials publicly objected to private conversations between Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots and the New England Revolution soccer team, and the University of Massachusetts Building Authority about building a 20,000-seat soccer stadium on the former Bayside Exposition Center site.

In the face of the strong pushback, the stadium plan was scrapped, but not before it reignited a conversation among community groups about the role of the 2011 Columbia Point Master Plan in any development discussions. UMass officials have said they made it clear to potential developers that construction on the Point must take prior community planning into account.

Beyond the campus, major developments were speckled across the neighborhood. The South Bay Town Center opened its first two buildings and welcomed its first few commercial tenants, one a major movie house – Dorchester’s first such venue in three decades – in late November. In December, the former Boston Globe headquarters property on Morrissey Boulevard changed hands as development partners Nordblom Co. and Alcion Ventures paid $81 million for the building and the land.

Of course, before new buildings go up, the dilapidated ones must go down. Demolition is kicking off, for example, on three properties at the corner of Savin Hill Avenue and Sydney Street that will clear the way for a new market, retail, and condominiums in place of a long-vacant variety store and two houses.

On Dorchester Avenue at East Cottage Street, developers are pitching an ambitious showpiece market, restaurant, and residential building in place of the current Tom English’s bar and the neighborhood staple Dorchester Market. Farther south on the avenue, disused industrial buildings have been fenced off for demolition to help make way for the mixed-use Dot Block development.

The city’s planning gears are whirring around the Dot Block site. A Glover’s Corner study, which will guide the rezoning and reshaping of the stretch of avenue between Savin Hill and Fields Corner, suddenly became the subject of controversy in late November when neighborhood advocates disrupting a transit-focused meeting to demand better communication and protections for affordable housing.

In the midst of the year’s maneuverings, Hong Kong billionaire Gerald Chan brought his Dorchester investments portfolio up past the $40 million mark with his purchase of the Spire Printing site on Bay Street down the street from the old Russell Engineering site that he purchased in 2016.

And this year he bought the land where Dot Block will rise, coming on as the project’s new investor. His plans for the Spire and Russell parcels remain unclear.

The normal pattern of civic associations weighing in, not always successfully, on development planning continued through 2017 with fruitless pushback against a 17-unit proposal in Savin Hill, a skeptical eye on plans for 57 condominiums at the former Molloy funeral parlor in Lower Mills, and heavy opposition against a plan to transform the tip of Port Norfolk into a sprawling wharf and marina project.

In Ashmont, the conversation around planning has taken a different tack. While the civic groups continue to plug along as they face a variety of projects – including the rebuilding of the fire-gutted and demolished Treadmark and a proposed 40-unit mixed-use building pitched for the Talbot Avenue home of an Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greater Ashmont Main Street is charting a proactive path toward development along the Dorchester Avenue corridor.

The main street group is cataloguing all of the properties in its district for historical significance and codifying the group’s position for the development of these parcels. They arranged for a traffic study along the Dorchester Avenue stretch, confident that the city will not dedicate significant planning resources in their territory.

Connecting either end of the neighborhoods, the transportation spines of Dorchester and Mattapan saw some twists and turns in 2017. Opposition to a proposed lane drop in the long-awaited Morrissey Boulevard renovation has pushed the design phase back as planners re-presented the project to local civic groups.

Fairmount Line riders are on a bit of a rollercoaster with the line. While the on-time rate for the 9.2-mile commuter rail route is now consistently excellent after an embarrassing late 2016, transit advocates pushed back unsuccessfully against a pilot program that will extend Fairmount and Franklin Line service down to Foxborough. Meanwhile, Blue Hill Avenue station, the fourth and final promised new stop on the line that will connect Mattapan residents, is under construction.

Local officials explored some innovative solutions to the Fairmount’s long-time woes – it operates solely within city limits, but with the frequency of a commuter rail train – among them them the possibility of a making it more like a rapid-transit line. State Rep. Evandro Carvalho filed a bill for a two-year pilot for such a model, and the city council passed a resolution in support of his bid. Mayor Martin Walsh later floated an amended version of the pilot for a shorter amount of time and using trains already available to align the proposal with MBTA pilot guidelines.

Last spring, US Rep. Michael Capuano dedicated $53,000 of his campaign funds for a two-week free ridership trial for Fairmont riders only to see the numbers drop off as construction on the new Mattapan station began to reroute riders by other transit.

The Mattapan High-Speed Trolleys gathered attention with elected officials doubling down on their interest in keeping the cars up and running and the MBTA committing $7.9 million to a repair project that will keep the PCC fleet operational while a review of the line continues into 2018.

Movement around the trolley’s Mattapan terminus is starting to take shape. The city is in receipt of an ambitious plan to transform the T’s parking lot there into a development comprising 135 housing units and expansive retail and community space in an area where the new Neponset Greenway connection links Mattapan with neighboring Milton via a key multi-modal pathway complete with statement bridges across the Neponset River and over the trolley tracks.