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Plans for Jackson Square move forward

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In fallow Jackson Square, a plan

T land eyed for homes, shops

By Paysha Stockton, Globe Correspondent | July 11, 2004

Today, about five acres of public land surrounding the Jackson Square T station sits empty.

But on the weed-choked, trash-strewn lots near Columbus Avenue and Centre Street, neighbors see vast potential for a lively new hub: a community center, an ice rink, and affordable homes above mom-and-pop stores.

''I see well-constructed, affordable housing," said Jesus Gerena, a member of the Jackson Square Coordinating Group, which crafted a ''community vision" for the property last year. ''I see an educational and recreational center where young people are given opportunities. . . . And I also see a neighborhood where small businesses exist, where people can follow their dreams."

This vision, which grew out of years of community meetings, became a little more real on July 2, when the city issued a request for development proposals.

Zoning changes, turning the land's designation from open space and industrial to residential and commercial, must clear neighborhood and city boards this summer to allow development, said Muhammad Ali-Salaam, the Boston Redevelopment Authority's manager for the Jackson Square project.

Two local nonprofit developers, Urban Edge and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. plan to submit a joint proposal, and others are expected to respond to the project, Ali-Salaam said.

The developers said they joined forces due to the scale.

''This is one of the largest sites in any neighborhood," said Mossik Hacobian, executive director of Urban Edge. He estimates the project's value at more than $200 million.

The developers have worked in JP for decades and participated in the evolution of the community.

If they win the contract, Urban Edge plans to add two properties to the development, Hacobian said, and a Public Works Department parcel may also be added, which would bring the total to 8.5 acres.

Building affordable housing, a community center, and small retail spaces -- not big money-makers -- will be tough, they said. But they'll honor the neighbors' wishes.

''We think there's a lot of support to really transform this neighborhood," said Richard Thal, executive director of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corp. ''We think we can get the resources to make it happen."

They'll consider every idea, they said, including a long-desired ice rink to replace defunct rinks in JP and Roxbury.

The nonprofit developers plan to hold community meetings before the Oct. 12 deadline for responding to the city. The deadline for final proposals is Jan. 24, and the city hopes to award the contract in March.

If the nonprofit duo wins, construction could begin in 2006, with units ready for move-in by 2008, Hacobian said. The groups will involve as many people as possible in their planning, he said.

Smart move, community leaders say. Coordinating group members will sit on the city selection committee, and developers will face neighbors at public forums.

Neighbors, who have killed at least two plans for the square, will speak out, said Erik Berg, a neighborhood council member.

''I got on the neighborhood council because of development in JP," Berg said. ''It was because I feared a blighting development down there."

The state acquired the land through eminent domain to build a highway around 1970, Ali-Salaam said, but the project flopped.

The property then went to the MBTA, which extended the Orange Line and created Southwest Corridor Park, he said. The T had 30 years to use the leftover parcels or declare them surplus before they reverted to state ownership.

The lots sat fallow for decades, Ali-Salaam said. ''People have to live with this blighted condition."

In 1998, Urban Edge tried to create a plan for the area, which included a K Mart store, he said, but neighbors opposed that plan, too.

That's when the city stepped in.

In 2002, the state, city, and MBTA agreed the parcels could be developed together. The MBTA and state will set a price after contamination and zoning issues are settled, he said.

Ali-Salaam said neighbors have high expectations: Their vision calls for 200 affordable units, 23,000 square feet of commercial space, and a 40,000-square-foot community recreation center.

''They expect it will be very challenging for the developers," he said. ''There's a big difference between what the community wants and what's economically feasible."

Berg said neighbors will keep their vision before developers. He's confident they'll listen. ''I don't think we'll stand for anything else."

From The Boston Globe

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