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At Square, back to the future?

A 'smart' plan: Build skyward

By Matt Gunderson, Globe Correspondent, 2/29/2004

Stuart Rosenberg wasn't around when two- and three-story shops lined the streets in Mattapan Square. Fires ravaged those buildings in the early 1900s. But today, Rosenberg and others involved in the neighborhood are aiming to reclaim the square's lost architectural heritage.

The Mattapan Community Development Corp. has launched a $1 million capital campaign to encourage more business owners to develop second-story apartments at their stores and shops. The first step in a three-year plan to intertwine business and residential life in the square would involve adding extra stories onto the CDC's Blue Hill Avenue headquarters.

Rosenberg, who has been active in Mattapan for the last 40 years and is director of business development at the CDC, said more elevated stores were common in the square in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but fires mostly wiped them out in the '20s and '30s.

After that, he said, developers built in more horizontal directions in the square rather than vertically.

Along with two new outdoor sculptures slated to be installed in the square this July, the vertical development plan is expected to add character to Mattapan Square, said Rosenberg, who is also president of the Mattapan Board of Trade.

"I think this will actually enhance the square and give it a real identity," he said.

The proposal has won the endorsement of House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Democrat who represents and lives in Mattapan.

Finneran personally donated $1,000 to the cause and gave his approval to the project at a visit earlier this month at CDC's headquarters on Blue Hill Avenue.

"It's his feeling that, when you have a commercial area with a large residential component, it keeps life and vitality in the community for a longer period of time," said Charlie Rasmussen, a press spokesman for Finneran's office.

Eva Clarke, executive director of Mattapan Community Development Corp., said vertical development should have numerous benefits for the square, besides just partly recreating its original historical milieu.

Such development ties in closely with the in-vogue philosophy among many of today's urban planners of "smart growth" and anti-sprawl, she said.

In part, smart growth advocates centralizing development near public transportation to cut down on parking needs and traffic -- another major impetus behind the plans, she said.

With a bigger local market of customers living in and near Mattapan Square, more businesses may also want to locate there, added Clarke.

As it is now, the neighborhood hub lacks important conveniences, such as a pharmacy, she said.

"We also don't have a bookstore right here in the square," Clarke said. "And we'd like a broader array of restaurants."

Money raised during the upcoming capital campaign will go toward the purchase of the CDC's Mattapan Square office building, which the corporation now leases, and the addition of more stories to that structure, said Clarke.

The CDC also plans to open a cybercafe on the first floor of its office space with some of the money, she said. In addition, as part of its long-range planning, the CDC is embarking on a visioning process for the square, working with local business owners to encourage development of second-floor apartments in their own buildings, Clarke said.

"It's still in the planning stages, but we think Mattapan Square is a great site for vertical development," Clarke said.

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Square talk: why not aim higher?

City looks at big picture in 3 business districts

By Robert Preer, Globe Correspondent | January 9, 2005

Years have passed since a storefront in Mattapan Square was vacant for an extended period. Most days, the area teems with people going in and out of shops, grabbing a bite in a restaurant, or waiting for a bus or trolley.

While by most measures Mattapan's central business district is thriving, city officials say this is precisely the time to launch an economic development initiative in the community.

"Mattapan is not a broken neighborhood," said Dana Whiteside, deputy director for economic development for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. "It has a lot of good things happening now. But there is also a sense that Mattapan has not reached its full potential."

In the fall, the redevelopment authority hired a consulting team and assembled a committee of local leaders to examine economic conditions in Mattapan and to make recommendations. The committee will hold its first formal meeting later this month. The $250,000 initiative is expected to take two years.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino called Mattapan "one of the gems of the city," adding that the development study is a tool to improve the area further. "I look forward to the results of the study and implementing them," he said.

City officials and local business and community leaders cite aspects of the square that could be improved. Some buildings and storefronts in Mattapan Square are drab and rundown. Parking is scarce and difficult, and traffic is a mess.

"The city could do a better job of increasing parking or increasing the turnover of the spaces that do exist," said District 4 City Councilor Charles C. Yancey.

The area also lacks a drugstore and a moderately priced, sit-down restaurant, both viewed as staples in many downtowns.

And Stuart Rosenberg, president of the Mattapan Board of Trade and a member of the economic development committee, issued a cautionary word about the full occupancy of the square's storefronts.

"To be honest, I'm not sure how long that is going to last," he said. "It has been a difficult retail season for many of the merchants."

The economic development initiative will also consider other business districts in Mattapan besides the square, including the Morton Street-Blue Hill Avenue junction and the area along Morton Street stretching toward Lower Mills.

Whiteside, who is heading the initiative for the BRA, said it will look at ways to expand jobs and investment in the area.

The genesis of the Mattapan economic development study was a City Council order filed by Yancey eight years ago when the city-owned Mattapan Specialty Hospital, the largest employer in the community, was closing. That property, located on River Street, just outside of Mattapan Square, is being redeveloped as elderly and assisted-living housing.

Although the council authorized the study in 1997, the redevelopment authority did not move to implement it until about a year ago.

Whiteside said this is a good time for the initiative because Mattapan is poised to take advantage of other developments in the community.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is planning to redevelop the trolley and bus terminal in the square, and is considering upgrading service on the Fairmount commuter rail line, which has a station on Morton Street.

Mattapan is also due to get a major public art installation later this year. A pair of 19-foot granite statues will form a semi-archway on Blue Hill Avenue at the Milton line, serving as a gateway to the community. The $500,000 project was funded by Boston's Edward Ingersoll Browne Trust Fund.

The economic development initiative will probably produce an action plan and, if money is required, recommendations for funding sources, according to Whiteside.

Among the possible proposals are improvements to signs and storefronts, business recruitment efforts, and new streetscapes and traffic lights, according to city officials and business leaders.

Another possibility is to join the Boston Main Streets program, which now provides 19 neighborhood business districts with funding and technical assistance.

"I believe Mattapan Square should be part of the Main Streets program so there could be more coordination among the merchants," Yancey said.

A more ambitious idea being discussed informally by Mattapan leaders is to replace some of the square's older, one-story buildings with taller ones that would have views of the Neponset River, the Blue Hills, and the Boston skyline, and would allow for apartments to be built above stores.

"Years ago, Mattapan had residential units above retail stores," said Eva Clarke, executive director of the Mattapan Community Development Corporation. "We think it's a model that worked well in the past."

Participants in the Mattapan initiative should think big, said Whiteside.

"The sky is the limit," he said.

From The Boston Globe

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Urban renewal, belatedly

Morton Street to join spiffed-up neighbors

By Robert Preer, Globe Correspondent | February 13, 2005

Since the early 1990s, motorists on Morton Street near the railroad bridge in Mattapan could look right or left to see a symbol of urban decay.

On one side, surrounded by weeds and scarred by graffiti, was a vacant supermarket, closed during an era when the big grocery chains were abandoning the inner city. Across the thoroughfare, which is heavily used by commuters as well as local traffic, was an old police station, closed about the same time as the supermarket, boarded up, and crumbling.

Today, these two properties appear to be on the verge of joining the wave of improvements that swept much of Mattapan and nearby sections of Dorchester in the late 1990s.

For several months, renovations have been underway on the old supermarket, which will be occupied by Economy Plumbing and Supply Co., now based in Jamaica Plain.

Behind the plumbing supply distributor is a 3-acre parcel that was acquired by Concord Baptist Church, a 1,500-member church now located in the South End. The church plans to build a sanctuary and a community center on the property.

And the old police station is about to change hands. The city Department of Neighborhood Development announced earlier this month that it is selling the property to Judge Development LLC, a company run by John D. Judge, former head of Habitat for Humanity in Boston and now a private developer.

Judge plans to raze the building, construct about 26 condominiums, sell 20 at market rates, and reserve six for people with reduced incomes.

City officials say they welcome the changes on Morton Street. Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the condominium plan "sends a real message of economic opportunity in Mattapan. It sends the message that Mattapan is a great place to live and a great place to raise a family."

District 4 City Councilor Charles C. Yancey called the projects on the other side of the street "a very exciting development." He added, "A lot of progress is being made. It has been vacant for so long."

While area residents are pleased to see the idle properties reused, some are wary of possible increased traffic.

Barbara Crichlow, president of the West Selden Street Neighborhood Association, said residents are worried that traffic to and from the new condominiums will disrupt small streets off Morton Street.

"We don't just want anything just because it has been empty," she said. Judge said he is still drawing up plans and will meet with neighbors to resolve concerns. He said the building would have parking for 50 cars. Stores are planned for the first floor.

Another change coming to the area is renovation of the Morton Street commuter rail station. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is improving stations along the line, which runs from Readville to South Station, and also is considering increasing service.

A Wendy's fast-food restaurant, proposed for Morton Street near the new plumbing supply company, was rejected by the city's Zoning Board of Appeal last October.

Judge said the area is attractive for new housing. "I think a lot of people realize it is a great neighborhood," he said. "There are retail stores nearby. There is a lot of pride among the homeowners and renters. There are schools in walking distance."

The Rev. Conley Hughes, pastor of Concord Baptist Church, said the property and neighborhood are ideal as the new home for the church.

"It's a prime piece of property in the heart of the community, something you rarely find in cities," Hughes said. "About half of our congregation lives in Dorchester or Mattapan. This is almost like coming home."

The supermarket building was occupied by a Star Market, which closed in 1989. Family Foodland, a small local chain, then occupied the building but closed in 1993.

The police station, which was built in the early 1900s, closed after the city opened a new police station on Blue Hill Avenue near the junction with Morton Street in 1991.

The city sought bids previously for the property but rejected all of the proposals. In a second round of bidding, the city selected Judge's redevelopment plan and offer for the property of $340,000. The total cost of the project is estimated at $4.5 million.

Judge said the condos will be a mix of one- and two-bedroom units in a four-story building. The market-rate two-bedroom units probably will sell for $260,000 and the affordable units for around $190,000, he said.

From The Boston Globe

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On track for station breaks

Trolley line rehab to make all the stops

By Robert Preer, Globe Correspondent | February 20, 2005

For riders of the Mattapan trolley out of Dorchester's Ashmont Station, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has good news and bad.

The line's six intermediate stations -- two in Dorchester and four in Milton -- are going to get makeovers, which will include new or repaired canopies, paint jobs for furnishings, new signs, and better handicapped access.

New lighting is also planned to enhance safety at some of the more isolated stops on the line, which parallels the Neponset River on much of its 2.6-mile route from Mattapan Square to Ashmont station in Dorchester.

The downside is that sometime later this year the line is going to close and stay closed for up to a year for the work.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the T is prepared to spend $2 million on renovations to the trolley stations.

After the MBTA announced last year that the line was going to have to close during the $33 million reconstruction of the Ashmont Station, state Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Milton Democrat, began pressing for renovations to the Milton stations. Part of the Ashmont project will include replacement of the elevated trolley track at the entrance to the station.

The Ashmont station work is expected to start later this year, although a timetable has not been set. Construction bids for the Ashmont project came in about $10 million higher than expected, and T and state officials are trying to decide whether to scale back the project or seek additional money.

Service on the trolley line also could be halted during the planned renovation of the Mattapan Square station. That project is still in the design phase, and there is no construction timetable. Joyce said he hopes the Ashmont and Mattapan station projects can be undertaken simultaneously to minimize disruption of trolley service.

When the trolley line is closed, the MBTA will run buses. Because the trolleys run on a dedicated track away from streets in some places, the bus routes have not been determined.

Joyce said he wants the T to operate two bus routes, one along River Street in Mattapan and Dorchester and the other along Eliot Street in Milton.

In addition to being a reliable form of transportation and a link to the MBTA's Red Line, the old trolleys are a part of history. Most of the cars are 1940s vintage. Considered state-of-the-art when they were introduced and once used in cities all over the United States, they have been phased out almost everywhere. San Francisco and Newark also still have trolleys.

Unlike the sleek models on the T's Green Line, the Ashmont trolleys screech and clang. They roll past three-deckers and large suburban homes. The trolleys cross two streets, stopping for traffic each time, and cut through the middle of Dorchester's Cedar Grove Cemetery. On part of the route, they run alongside the Neponset Greenway bike path in Milton and Dorchester.

Another quirk of the trolley line is that it is free, at least most of the time. Riders who take it outbound from Ashmont pay nothing. Only inbound passengers who get off before Ashmont are supposed to pay 90 cents.

The fabled Charlie on the MTA -- ''the man who never returned" because he didn't have a nickel to exit -- could have ended his eternal misery had he stepped off here.

In the mid-1990s, the MBTA considered closing the line because of the difficulty of maintaining the aging trolleys. The agency eventually committed to keeping the line open. The old cars were rehabilitated.

The trolleys remain popular with riders, despite occasional overcrowding during rush hour.

''The trolley line is vitally important to the neighborhood," said Michael B. Mackan, who lives in Dorchester near Butler station. ''A lot of people use them to get into Boston. It's a great plus for the neighborhood."

From The Boston Globe

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I'm glad to hear the T is shutting down the M line to renovate it - and not to abandon it. One thing they ought to to while the Mattapan line is shut down is to test the feasiblity of running Type 7 or Boeing LRVs on the route, perhaps putting in new bridges that can handle their weight.

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