Uphams Corner community talks development with city officials

An RFP released in September will set out the city's goals for development on the Uphams Corner parcels noted in a BPDA presentation.

Some 30 Uphams Corner residents and business owners had a chance to offer their thoughts about the key elements in the city’s development initiative for the neighborhood ­– a new $18 million branch library, updates to the Strand Theatre, and affordable housing and commercial space – at a June 28 workshop that was held in the Kroc Corps Community Center.

Discussions centered around what will be included in the city’s final request for proposals (RFP) that will be issued in September. The forum gave attendees the opportunity to ask officials from various city departments about development plans.

“The first objective of the RFP is that we try to implement the plans decided by this community to create that vibrant arts and innovation district,” said John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development and an Uphams Corner resident.

The revitalization is one of a series of neighborhood plans within the Imagine Boston 2030 project, which is meant to serve as a framework for development in Boston over the next decade or so.

When Mayor Martin Walsh first unveiled the Imagine Boston plan last July at an event in Uphams Corner, he announced that the parcel at 555 Columbia Rd., now the site of a 1900s bank building, will be the home of the new library branch. Through partnerships with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, the city controls a large adjacent parking lot, into which the library could sprawl, and several other nearby parcels.

David Leonard, president of the Boston Public Library system, told the workshop audience that the library would be “on the larger size based on the portfolio of branches.” Depending on how the Strand piece of this puzzle comes together, Leonard said, “there’s a provision in the RFP that would include a shared space, such as a black box-like space, in addition to the 15,000 square feet.”

The prospect of fusing art and theater into a library would “bring in a tremendous amount of people and interest,” said attendee Bruce Hermann. “It’s not just about books and it’s not something you would normally associate with. If you bring a lot of young people in, the world opens up. The overall arts theme would be a great way to capitalize that in a new library.”

The new interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Kara Elliott-Ortega, said the city-owned Strand Theatre “is seen as a cultural anchor for the community and we want to see an increase in programming and accessibility to the neighborhood.” She added that a theater operator must be able to provide culturally relevant programming for the diverse audience in the neighborhood, “including people of color and immigrant communities” while noting that the “rental spaces must be affordable and accessible to local artists and performing arts groups.”

“Our role in this project is to create good, affordable housing that will be permanent, that will hopefully prevent displacement,” she said. “We’ve heard in previous meetings that there is a preference for rental housing. People have requested artist housing that would stick along with the arts and innovation district. 20 percent of all housing units in the development will be set aside for artists.”

Addressing residents’ fears that small businesses could be displaced by incoming box stores, Kristina Ricco, of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said that because most of the retail space in the district is under 1500 square feet, “it would essentially rule out the larger chains. We really want to see Uphams Corner preserved as affordable commercial space.”

Barros said that he hopes the conversation will continue.

Discussion boards from the meeting, and draft language for the RFP, can be found at the BPDA website.