December 23, 2021
There has been a lot of missing teeth in the development of buildings along Blue Hill Avenue for nearly two generations, but there is hope that those gaps will be filled in as the first 8 of 30 city-owned vacant lots along the Ave. were designated for development this week – with five of them allotted to a young, local developer who has spent most of her life driving past the empty lots.
Last week, the Public Facilities Department (PFD) met with the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) to designate the eight lots, which stretch from Franklin Field to Morton Street. The PFD voted unanimously to designate five of them to DAV Consulting, which is owned by Mattapan’s Dariela Villon-Maga, and the other three to Habitat for Humanity Greater Boston.
Both plans, while preliminary, stressed affordable homeownership and affordable commercial spaces for sale in presentations to the public last fall. The lots were part of the “B1” group of lots, with three other groupings of vacant lots running from Mattapan Square to Grove Hall still in the process stage.
These moves are the first part of a major initiative within the Blue Hill Avenue Action Plan to fill in missing pieces of housing and commerce along the corridor – some of the lots have been vacant for 40 years or more – with an emphasis on putting them in the hands of local developers of color. The hope is to use existing and new businesses in tandem with major upcoming transportation projects to recapture the retail and entertainment destination that was once a staple of Blue Hill Avenue prior to the introduction of commuter car travel.
City Councillor Andrea Campbell was one of the key drivers of the dispersal of vacant lots as part of the action plan. She worked with the community to make sure that what was built matched needs and that it was built by developers of color from the community.
“I was proud to launch the vacant lot initiative in partnership with community and am thrilled to see continued action by the city to activate vacant lots along Blue Hill Avenue, including the designations of a local, black woman-led development team and Habitat for Humanity who will create both affordable homeownership and commercial space opportunities for our community,” she said this week after the news of the first developer designation.
The Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council (GMNC) has been carefully watching the process, and Chair Fatima Ali-Salaam said they were happy with these initial results. She said they worked very hard with DND to revise the original RFP on the vacant lots to make sure local developers from the community had a shot.
“At the end of the day, we want to make sure that what’s built on Blue Hill Avenue is an opportunity for younger developers who are from our community and have a chance to participate because they really don’t usually get that,” she said. “It is very exciting. It’s exciting people who may not have been thought of before – like DVM and Habitat – who will be able to develop affordable commercial space and affordable housing and bring some sort of better design to the forefront…What was presented will probably not be the final product, but definitely whatever it is will be improved upon.”
For the 35-year-old Villon-Maga, the lots represent an opportunity she hasn’t typically had; they also offer a chance for her to make a change to the community she has lived in all her life. Growing up along Blue Hill Avenue in Grove Hall, and now living in Mattapan, passing by the five lots designated for her to develop has been a daily occurrence since childhood.
“We’ve seen all of these parcels released by the city in the neighborhoods and in other parts of the neighborhood and for me, I was wondering when it would be that they would release these and if they would be developed,” she said. “I was excited to see we are finally here. This neighborhood has suffered a lot through the last 60 years. Blue Hill Avenue used to be the trolley and bus line commercial district.
“I’m excited to be able to do this in my neighborhood,” she continued. “I’ve been given this opportunity and I want to make sure I give an opportunity in this development to other folks of color. I hope it sets a precedent of how local folks can make a difference in their own community with development.”
The daughter of immigrant parents from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Villon-Maga said she attended Boston Latin Academy through her senior year, and at that point went into property management. Having done a lot of consulting with firms like TLee Development and Oxbow in Dorchester, she said being involved with project management and putting teams together with those developers helped her to decide to jump at this opportunity.
Uniting with others in the area, such as Juice Up Café at 1290 Blue Hill Ave. and Black Market in Nubian Square, she hopes that the development can trigger creation of wealth for new homeowners and for existing businesses.
The current DVM plan will incorporate eight homeownership units for 80 percent to 100 percent of the AMI and 20 units of rental housing within the same price structure at three buildings – all within eyeshot of one another in the 1000 block of Blue Hill Avenue. The plan also includes two affordable commercial condos for sale to businesses in the area, with the price set at between $140,000 and $150,000.
Villon-Maga said she is excited to meet with the community to refine her design and find out what people in the area really want from her development.
“It’s exciting to be the first, but it’s a lot of pressure in making sure I stay true to my community and they’re at the forefront,” she said. “The city and the state have been talking a lot about creating Black wealth. We’re in a unique position in Boston right now to use these vacant parcels and development to do that, but we need this deep level of affordability to make these units accessible for the community to create that wealth.”
Habitat Boston didn’t return a phone call requesting comment, but their designated plan includes 12 units of affordable homeownership in three buildings on three sites for those at or below the 80 percent AMI. It also includes affordable commercial space condos for local businesses as well.
Said DND Project Manager Julio Piliar at the PFD meeting last week, “Habitat Boston’s proposal was the most advantageous and offered the most community benefits, including a development plan that met the community aspiration of having affordable homeownership and retail opportunities while promoting diversity and inclusion.”
Meetings for the remaining vacant city-owned lots on the Blue Hill Avenue Action Plan are ongoing, with Grove Hall hosting a first session earlier this month. Meetings for the DVM and Habitat proposals are expected in the spring.