City to release Request for Ideas for short-term project at Uphams Corner bank site

The Uphams Corner bank building in question

The city is asking potential operators for suggestions on how to, in the near term, activate a former Bank of America bank building parcel that will be the site of an $18 million new Uphams Corner branch of the Boston Public Library.

In a Request for Ideas (RFI) released Thursday, Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration calls for short-term activation possibilities for 555 Columbia Rd. a key parcel in the revitalization of Uphams Corner. Submissions are due by end of business on Friday, May 4.

The tan stone-fronted building was home to the Dorchester Trust Company in 1917, and has since cycled through bank ownership and was closed in 2014. The city purchased it in February 2017. City-hosted walkthroughs of the space are planned for April 12 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and April 18 from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

This roughly 6,300-square foot structure would be used as a short-term project, starting Summer 2018 and going for 12 to 18 months. Any operation of the building would be “for the public and community benefit -- as a community space for arts, innovation, and/or small business operations,” the RFI specifies.

“It is important that as we plan for the future, we are making the best use of the spaces we currently have and using them in a way that meets the current needs of residents,” Walsh said in a statement. “With the right activation in place, we believe this model could contribute to the immediate revitalization of Upham’s Corner, and I look forward to seeing the ideas that will bring this space back to life.”

The operator will be restricted to programming the first floor for public use only, according to the RFI, and the city would need to specifically agree to any use of the second floor for office space.

It is part of an early initiative by the city to find uses in the near future for several city- and city partner-owned parcels around the Uphams Corner area. The neighborhood is in the midst of a reinvention into the city’s first “Arts Innovation District” -- part of the Imagine Boston 2030 planning process.

"We're really excited about it because we’re able to provide the building at no cost to the operator and have it serve as a community space," said Natalia Urtubey, the Director of Imagine Boston 2030.

For now, the RFI and similar activation projects are intended to start building community and arts spaces while broader visioning continues and before any Requests for Proposals (RPF) are sent out.

It is "part of a larger strategy," Urtubey said. With walking tours, pop-ups, and other short-term uses, "how do we engage all these empty vacant spaces in a way that allows us to serve the community, bring visibility, and increase foot traffic for the neighborhood?"

The RFI describes the bank as “in good, working order” and specifies that any operator would take on the parcel “as is,” footing the cost for any needed changes to bring it up to code. The selected operator would be responsible for all operational and maintenance costs, including utilities, security, cleaning and day-to-day needs.

Urtubey said the building is in good shape for a temporary usage, since the structure itself is not necessarily meant to be a permanent fixture. Both the bank lot and the large parking lot next door are planned for the eventual library.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) is hosting a Pop-UP Pop-IN series at 572 Columbia Rd. -- the former Citizens Bank building that the DSNI community land trust worked with the city to purchase last year -- to engage the community in the planning process its future development.

Public meetings around the 555 Columbia Rd. site and neighboring parcels owned by the city or the DSNI land trust are exploring revitalization options around Uphams Corner.

City officials hope to conclude the public meetings with RFPs for the bank building and future library, the Strand Theatre, and other nearby lots, which would modernize and enrich the already-present creative community in this Dorchester village.

The schedule around the RFP -- they hope to release it in the summer -- will not be impacted by the short-term RFI process, Urtubey said. Any temporary programming would be in place until construction or other permanent structural transformation process begins.

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