Innovation teams pitch options for District 4’s disused lots

This property at 114 Bowdoin St. in one of more than 100 vacant lots in Councillor Andrea Campbell’s district. She worked alongside a team of students to identify possible re-uses for the site and others during a workshop at Wentworth Institute of Technology last month.

An international partnership took a crack at reimagining uses for some of Dorchester and Mattapan’s vacant or underutilized lots during a 24-hour workshop on Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23, at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Teams of students, community members, designers, and engineers pitched transit-centered gardens, flexible apprenticeship spaces, and youth-oriented work and play hubs for a handful of properties across City Council President Andrea Campbell’s District 4.

The “Reclaiming Space” workshop brought Campbell’s office, the Consulate of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the urban design firm Tapp/NL, and a host of local residents together to talk about ways of tackling the scourge of vacant and disused lots in the councillor’s district.

The city is aware of over 100 vacant lots in District 4, Campbell said about a topic she had explored last year at a hearing co-sponsored by Councillor Matt O’Malley.

The councillors last week re-filed their hearing order on vacancies, including data collection, a fee to reduce vacancies in commercial or residential properties, and a streamlined permitting process for pop-ups in vacant properties.

“I was shocked by the data, and I was disappointed, frankly, to know that city-owned property could sit vacant for years, sometimes decades, with no ideas, no plans to activate these spaces,” Campbell said. In the long term, she added, “Our goal is to make sure we have resources for some of these ideas we have, but before we get there, it would be nice to have some sense of what the ideas are, what the possibilities are.”

To that end, on Friday the 22nd, eight carefully curated groups chose candidates from 15 parcels in the district that are blighted or otherwise underutilized, and worked throughout the day on Saturday on their project pitches. They were encouraged to take cues from the Dutch experience with creative land use, incorporating multi-function spaces and green space and creating financially viable pitches.

Surveys sent out over mobile phones helped guide the teams with neighborhood feedback into the best uses for the properties. District-wide, about 35 percent of respondents said they were looking for more housing, 27 percent wanted community green space, 22 percent were interested in urban farms or gardens, and about 8 percent each spoke up for public art or commercial space.

The teams spent “six hours in very immersive way, thinking about what is most beneficial for the community, because they live with it every day,” said Monique Fuchs, associate vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship at Wentworth. “We always look for interdisciplinarity, and try to make sure these things are as interdisciplinary as possible in experience, generationally, diversity. As a result, I think the suggestions and the ideas that were generated were extremely concrete.”

One group proposed a combination work and e-sports space at 318 Talbot Ave. in Codman Square, a three-story building with two floors of housing above a vacant first floor commercial unit. Noting its proximity to multiple schools and the rise of competitive multi-player video-gaming, the team proposed a supervised education space where teens could earn e-sports screen time through completing school work or other tasks and have access to healthy food and a good internet connection.

Costs could be offset through sponsorships, a non-electronic billboard on the building’s side, and solar panels, they suggested.

Fatima Ali-Salaam, a Mattapan resident and community leader, was on that team. As a mother of teenagers, she emphasized that the age group is often left adrift between younger and hyper-monitored children and independent young adults. At that age, “you do need to have a different type of safe space,” she said.

Their pitch is for “a safe space that they could go to that is staffed appropriately, where staff could be paid an appropriate living wage, and more to the point that gives back to the community,” she added. “It’s a place where you know that if your teenagers are there, you do not have to worry and they can go home safely.”

Another team thought a building at 240 Bowdoin St. might become an apprenticeship structure through partnering with building trades and teen centers like College Bound Dorchester. Yet another offered that a combination public art exhibit and community farm might transform the empty 114 Bowdoin St., and a third suggested that a small triangular property at 1476 Dorchester Ave. across from the Fields Corner station could begin as a community clean-up location or food truck parking spot, before adding a community kitchen and event space and, finally, transforming the building into a lot for art installations and movie nights built around a shared daytime kitchen.

Fuchs said they are now working to assemble an online resource with images and videos and slide decks from the workshop, as much for the general public as for Councillor Campbell’s office.

“Our hope is that we can turn this around soon,” she said. “We really want these materials to be used by whoever – take whatever is there and use it, evolve it, modify it, make it your own. That’s the whole point.”