BPDA board approves twin proposals for Uphams Corner

A slide from a 2020 city of Boston presentation on the Uphams Corner planning initative shows the Strand Theatre and the future site of a new library branch at 555 Columbia Rd.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) board last Tuesday (Sept. 14) approved a pair of proposals aimed at finding a private operator for the city-owned Strand Theatre and building a new library branch in Uphams Corner, along with affordable housing that would be built in tandem with the new facility.

City officials are hailing the board’s vote as a pivotal moment following nearly five years of planning to create what the Walsh administration termed the “Uphams Corner Arts & Innovation District.”

The first Request for Proposal (RFP) seeks a developer to build affordable housing units on top of a new branch library that would replace the former Bank of America building at 555-559 Columbia Rd.

Previously the library branch was meant to be at the corner where the Santander Bank is, but the city and the private owner of that parcel couldn’t come to terms, leaving the best option – according to the BPDA – to be affordable housing with a branch library on the bottom floor.

That is now being shopped around as the latest innovation in housing in Boston, dubbed by the agency as the “Housing with Public Assets” initiative. It would require changes to existing regulations as well.

BPDA project manager Megan McDaniel said the RFP for 555-559 Columbia Rd. is seeking a developer that will also deliver an empty shell for the library branch, as well as a commercial space. The respondent would also be responsible for finding an operator for the Strand Theatre, as the RFPs are expected to be packaged together.

Proponents for the site will have to bring a partner or some component of the proposal that will operate the Strand Theatre,” said McDaniel.

District 3 City Councillor Frank Baker has championed the idea of having the new library on the first floor, with affordable housing above it. But he has also expressed concern that pairing the library/housing project with the Strand may be too much for one developer to pull off.

“I think the RFP is too big because someone may come in who wants to build a building but may not want to operate the Strand, or the other way around,” said Baker. “Really, I think they might need to be flexible…I think it’s a little ambitious. I hope that one person could do it, but that’s going to be difficult.”

Baker would also prefer that two distinct RFPs be issued.

He also wants planners to consider the Uphams district in more holistic terms, particularly when it comes to providing parking for the Strand, something that he said is key to the success of the entire Arts & Innovation District plan.
“Especially at night, you want to be parking as close to the theatre as possible,” he said. “I put it on the city for not leading the conversation on that.”

Baker said the city of Boston should have utilized the formerly publicly owned land at the old Citizens Bank building (568-574 Columbia Rd.) for four decks of parking for the Strand. The developer could have built that within the current development, he said, and could have also built market-rate housing to help support the businesses and the theatre.
Earlier this year Dudley Neighbors, Inc. (DNI) released its own RFP to develop the Citizens Bank building. In May, the group selected a development team co-led by Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (DBEDC) and Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH). That proposed development will deliver permanently affordable rental housing, as well as provide affordable commercial space that honors the Arts & Innovation theme.

“The city should be doing this in conjunction with the community, but the city needs to drive the discussion up there,” Baker said. “I hope we can get it done.”

The BPDA and the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) expect to release the two conjoined RFPs before the end of this month or in early October. City officials said the moment is a big one for Uphams Corner and builds on years of planning with the community.

City officials also dubbed it development without displacement – the overall mantra and model for Uphams Corner revitalization.

“We have an incredible opportunity in Uphams Corner to revitalize vacant, underutilized properties and parking lots into transformative spaces that will support existing residents and restore the neighborhood into the cultural hub that it is,” said Acting Mayor Kim Janey in a statement. “These RFPs come after years of community-centered planning, and I thank the members of the WAG, and all of the local stakeholders who have helped us reach this milestone.” 

The milestone came after numerous city agencies worked for years alongside the Uphams Corner Working Advisory Group (WAG), the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), DNI, and Uphams Corner Main Streets to ensure that the redevelopment of multiple vacant and dilapidated sites in Uphams Corner would be redeveloped to support the local community. The WAG is a city-appointed advisory group consisting of residents, business owners, advocates, and other community leaders.

“DSNI applauds the intentionality behind the language included in the RFP to promote diversity and development without displacement,” said John Smith, executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and WAG member. “As neighborhoods around the city continue to deal with economic inequities and gentrification, it’s important to focus on development without displacement. DSNI has a mission to act as a steward for neighborhood development, and as such we will continue to advocate for community development that does not leave the ‘community’ behind.”

Added Joan Tighe, coordinator for the Fairmount Indigo CDC Collaborative: “As a long time Uphams Corner resident and WAG member, I am excited about the revitalization that is coming. A rejuvenated Strand Theatre and a new public library are critical to the artistic and commercial life of the business district and the surrounding neighborhood.  Coupled with the creation of new affordable housing, I see a bright future for Uphams Corner in the years ahead.”

One of the more exciting aspects is how the new library for Uphams Corner eliminates the odd configuration of the current branch farther up Columbia Road that utilizes an old, empty municipal pool for a children’s reading area.
Components of the new library facility will support arts and innovation, including the ability to host performing arts productions, displays of BPL collections related to the performing arts, and a maker space. To help support the overall district concept, the RFP calls for the commercial space to support arts and innovation, while a significant portion of the affordable housing will be set aside as artist housing.  

The site is currently vacant and requires environmental remediation. Once complete, the BPL said it expects the site will serve as a model for similar situations around the city. 

“We cannot wait to deliver on a decades-old promise of a new library for the Uphams Corner community,” said BPL president David Leonard.  “To be a part of this community-driven collaboration has been incredibly exciting, and we are looking forward to delivering the community a fantastic new, larger public library at the heart of this arts and innovation district.”  

That is a something that Councillor Baker said he completely supports.

“Think about how great it would be if people could go downstairs and their lobby is a library,” he said. “Libraries aren’t just books; they are the community coming in and looking at each other in the eyes and interacting.”

The city also touted the Strand piece within the overall RFP, and said it is asking for an experienced operator to join with the housing/library developer and “lead robust programming that supports the local arts community and restores the Strand as a cultural destination for the region and the anchor of the Upham’s Corner Arts & Innovation District.”

The city-owned Strand’s footprint comprises approximately 56,000 square feet containing 1,400 seats. The city’s departments will host a virtual pre-proposal conference on Oct. 13 and a site visit on Oct. 19. Attendance for bidders is optional but strongly encouraged. Responses to the RFPs are due on Dec. 23. 

Development opportunity on Hamlet St. parking lot

In addition to the RFPs put out for housing, the library and the Strand, DND also announced an additional opportunity for commercial development on Hamlet Street on what is now an 88-space city-owned surface parking lot behind America’s Food Basket.

DND is expecting to release the RFP very soon for 0-18 Hamlet Street, and is calling for mixed-use development on the site. That includes affordable commercial space and affordable housing – as well as replacing the 88 spots of public parking within the new development.

The site is currently in use as Municipal Lot #19, and the RFP is explicit in requiring those spaces to be replaced as part of any development proposal in addition to providing parking to support additional uses on the site. 

Like all development now in Uphams Corner, commercial development on Hamlet Street will be expected to tap into the vision for the Upham’s Corner Arts & Innovation District.

“A portion of the plan for this site should deliver permanently affordable housing to support the Uphams Corner community and promote a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood,” read a statement from DND. “While housing is not the primary preferred use of this site, a portion of the site can accommodate housing that relates to the scale of other residential structures along Hamlet Street.”

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