The ‘Other Side’ of Charlestown: Industrial Center or the Next Hot Address?

Fronting Rutherford Avenue, at the corner of A Street, the new Bridgeview Center is under construction and finally taking shape. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) approved project on former BRA-owned land seeks to create 60 units of housing for low income, homeless and developmentally disabled folks. The long-expected project from Charlestown’s Life Focus Center is greatly needed for the population and people generally support the idea of that kind of housing.

But it has one key problem that seems to be a growing trend on the other side of Rutherford Avenue, opposite mainland Charlestown, and why many folks in the community did not support the building plan.

It opens up onto a heavily used truck route; and it’s located in the heart of a thriving industrial center.

As it gets closer to completion every day, there are a good many who have questions about the use and about further residential uses in that industrial center.

As real estate near the downtown area heats up all over Boston – such as in the South End’s Ink Block – residential developers have seized upon building large apartment buildings and hotel developments close to the city’s center and close to public transportation hubs. With land in those areas hard to come by, current areas housing industrial uses have begun to attract the attention of residential developers who see these vast tracts of underdeveloped land as prime targets for the next great wave of development for market-rate and affordable housing.

The Bunker Hill Industrial Park situated between Bunker Hill Community College, Interstate 93 and Sullivan Square Station is no exception – an area very close to downtown, convenient to the subway and a short walk to thriving business centers.

However, the once-overlooked tract of land has never had a development plan drawn up, and no one is really sure if the City sees it as a new residential neighborhood or a continuing industrial center – and already the competing, and probably incompatible uses, are beginning to butt up against one another.

“We’re five stories into a seven-story building that’s going to house our most vulnerable population and the front door opens onto a truck route,” said State Rep. Dan Ryan late last month. “I believe in the idea and want to see more housing for the developmentally disabled, but this is like putting housing in the Chelsea Produce Center. I honestly believe the BRA has a plan in the back of their minds for the area that’s non-industrial, but they’re not coming forward yet with a comprehensive plan. It’s piece by piece so far.”

And that has caused some questions with more folks that just Ryan, who fear the City is growing at such a fast pace and developers are moving so fast, that planners and planning processes cannot keep up.

Already, a luxury residential developer from New York City – who is currently developing in downtown Boston – has paid nearly $15 million for a vacant warehouse building in the industrial park. No plans have been discussed by the developer, who isn’t speaking with the press, but most don’t believe the company bought the one-story warehouse in order to store fruit or start a trucking operation.

Also, a South Boston developer has preliminarily proposed several hundred units of transit-oriented housing on Sullivan Square in the old Graphic Arts Building – a project with potentially expensive luxury lofts that would overlook a gigantic school bus storage yard and a gravel plant.

At the same time, industrial uses are prospering in the area. Costa Fruit is a growing business, and Casella Waste has just proposed to expand its recycling operation to add a solid waste trash transfer station – not exactly the ideal neighbor for an apartment building pitching luxury units.

The BRA neighborhood planner for Charlestown, Ted Schwartzberg, said the Rutherford Avenue corridor has been discussed internally, but no major planning has yet taken place.

Schwartzberg said the BRA has identified several Strategic Planning Areas, and are working on two of them right now. The first is Dorchester Avenue from South Boston to Dorchester, and the second is the Columbus Avenue/Washington Street corridor in Jamaica Plain.

“There are other areas that we will be looking at in the very near future as we continue on,” he said. “We identified several areas around the city and Sullivan Square was one discussed at length. Right now, most of the area is zoned for industrial uses and there are long standing industrial uses there and train tracks and it’s under a viaduct for the interstate. The question isn’t what I think should be the future, but rather what would come out of a comprehensive planning process…That question will be answered by a planning strategy and what the community indicates it wants.

“The industrial zoning is still in place and any building that is being built and any uses would have to be compatible with industrial zoning,” he continued. “The City is changing though, and Charlestown zoning was done in 1999 and the area has changed since then.”

However, he said he didn’t necessarily think the City needs to get rid of industrial areas like the Bunker Hill Industrial Park.

“A lot of people want to live in Boston and we’re focusing on housing citywide,” he said. “There is a place for industrial uses also as they provide jobs, key infrastructure for our city and our economy to work. Certain areas may not be best suited for industrial use, but it is necessary to have industrial. We don’t want to lose sight of the value of those zones as well.”

Ryan said he would like to see someone come out publicly and say just what it is that’s going to go on the ‘other side’ of Rutherford Avenue before it’s too late – before the market determines the use before the planners.

To be fair, the area has never been a residential neighborhood. In the old days, it was a mill pond and also housed the Middlesex Canal that travelled to the textile factories in Lawrence and Lowell. It was also a rail bed for decades before the interstate came through in the 1950s, and the only people who ever lived there were those who spent criminal sentences in the old State Prison (currently where BHCC is located) or rail yard workers in the late 1800s.

“I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it into a nice new neighborhood with streets, access to the T and two new T stations and thriving small businesses, but that’s not what’s there,” Ryan said. “That might be where we’re going, but no one has come forward and said that. Let’s have a master plan where we have all the businesses and residents weighing in. We have all this casino money, let’s make it work. It’s not going to work with a trash transfer station next to an apartment building. I feel I have an obligation at this point to protect the businesses that are there.”

BRA Spokesman Nick Martin said balancing the healthy housing development market with planning is delicate and something that’s taking place all over the city.

“I think we’re feeling similar pressures in different neighborhoods all over the city and it’s not unique to Charlestown,” he said. “It’s a very positive thing people want to live in the city and we’re growing, but we want to do it thoughtfully and responsibly. In Jamaica Plain where we are in a planning process now, there are small groups of existing developers who have purchased properties and are sitting on them or are in the early stages of rolling projects out to the community. We have to exercise our judgement and expertise to balance this planning and economic development. We don’t want to choke the development market, but we want to also make sure neighborhoods grow in a respectful way.

“It’s too early to cite a timeframe for planning that area of Charlestown, but certainly it’s an area we’re discussing a lot and we would like to do some planning there sooner rather than later,” he concluded.

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