Joe Corcoran, prominent builder, devoted Dot native, is dead at 84

Joseph E. Corcoran, Uphams Corner man

Joseph E. Corcoran, a Dorchester native, devoted philanthropist, and developer who transformed the Columbia Point peninsula, died on Wed., June 3, of heart failure. He was 84. According to his family, Mr. Corcoran, died at his home surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

Mr. Corcoran, the youngest of eight children of Irish immigrants, grew up in Dorchester during the Great Depression. In 1973, he founded the real estate development company Corcoran Jennison, which over time built some $2.5 billion in properties nationally.

He made it his mission to bring people from different incomes together and to provide social services for those of humble means. He ignored naysayers who doubted that market rate renters would live with poorer people.

“I knew it would work because I lived it growing up,” he said.

The Corcoran family asked that— instead of flowers— donations be made in his memory to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester or to St. Mary’s Center on Jones Hill, two of many Dorchester organizations that he was particularly devoted to helping over the decades.

News of his death last week drew reaction from city and state leaders, including Mayor Martin Walsh, who saluted Mr. Corcoran as “a good man with a kind heart, who excelled in his career and touched the lives of so many people through his work to lift up low and middle income residents with good, safe housing.

“Joe Corcoran spent his life serving others, and was always working to improve the lives of others who were less fortunate, while taking care of those in his community,” said Walsh. “He will be deeply missed by the entire city of Boston, but especially by his Irish friends and family, and his community in Dorchester.”

UMass president Marty Meehan called Mr. Corcoran “a leader, a builder — and a kind and generous man,” who “never stopped being ‘Joe Corcoran from Uphams Corner.’

“He was UMass Boston’s friend and neighbor, creating the Harbor Point residential community and nearby ventures at Bayside,” Meehan said. “During the course of his remarkable life and career, Joe’s business achievements were many, as were his philanthropic and civic contributions.

“Joe’s love for Dorchester and Boston was clear for all to see, as was his tireless support and advocacy for his ancestral homeland, Ireland…. Joe’s warmth, wit, and friendly greetings will be remembered by all.”

The son of John and Mary (Merrigan) Corcoran, who emigrated from Co. Roscommon in the 1920s, Joe grew up in the Uphams Corner neighborhood. “It was very much an old country existence,” he told the Reporter in an interview in 2000.

“One of my great joys recently was listening to the audiotape of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.” It brought me back to that kitchen table. They had the same way of phrasing things, the same sense of humor that I heard when I was growing up. As conversationalists, they were terrific.”

Mr. Corcoran’s older brothers John and Leo survived combat in World War II. Joe served in the Army during the Korean War and followed his older brother to Boston College on the GI Bill. He began working as an educator, teaching English in the Boston public schools before making an attempt at a different profession— politics. He ran for state representative in Dorchester’s Ward 15 in 1966 and lost by less than 100 votes.

The company that he co-founded in 1971— Corcoran Jennison — earned a national reputation by transforming the former Columbia Point from a blighted, dangerous housing project into a safe and vibrant mixed-income community that residents now call Harbor Point. The redevelopment effort, which extended through the 1980s, became a national model for the federal government’s HOPE VI program.

“I could be in the Legislature for 30 years and not have an accomplishment like that,” he told the Reporter.

His company built and managed 20,000-plus housing units and thousands of acres of real estate, including hospitality, office, retail and mixed-use projects in more than 15 states.

One notable property that his firm re-developed was the onetime Keystone camera factory in Neponset, which was transformed into a senior apartment complex that remains a vital housing center for the elderly in the neighborhood.

For more on the passing of Joseph E. Corcoran, see death notice on Page 14 and this week’s editorial on Page 8.