Mayor Walsh and his team opened a new front in the city’s campaign to build more housing for the rapidly growing population of Boston— and it’s one that could directly impact Dorchester in the coming years.
The administration announced last Friday that it will invite private interests to respond to a Request for Information to “measure interest in the mixed-use redevelopment of assets such as community centers, libraries, and fire stations.”
These city-owned assets could “spur the development of additional housing for Boston residents, while improving the infrastructure conditions of city buildings through redevelopment,” the mayor’s office explained.
The Reporter caught up with Walsh in person at an event in Codman Square on Monday and asked him what, more specifically, this might mean in his home neighborhood.
“We have certain spots in our neighborhood, like in Fields Corner, the library, there’s an opportunity to put housing on top of that,” he said. “Any time we can do some public-private partnerships to build housing it’s important.
“I think we’re going to be building a lot of libraries and we’re going to be doing a lot of fire stations over, so if there’s opportunities we should be looking at them,” the mayor said.“It’s something that we’re going to look at. They’ve done it in other cities successfully.”
Boston has also successfully done a version of this in the past. Under Mayor Tom Menino, the city sold off its old police headquarters on Berkeley Street to a private developer who converted the building into a hotel. Funds from the sale helped the city subsidize the construction of new, affordable housing in Dorchester and other neighborhoods.
But Walsh’s concept is far more expansive and, potentially, more impactful. There are scores of properties in the city’s portfolio that could be re-developed over the coming years, even decades. He points to Washington, D.C., which recently completed a combination firehouse, library, and affordable housing complex on city-owned land.
That’s a model that could work well on certain parcels, including ones that are not yet in the city’s budget pipeline. For example, in Lower Mills, where the city’s public library branch is aging but not yet slated for renovation, it would make sense to conceptualize a modernized branch with housing units above or adjacent to the site. In theory, the private partner in such a redevelopment would help the city pay for the construction — or lease space from the city, allowing for more speed and, potentially, multiple projects across the city.
The administration is now actively planning new library branches in Adams Corner, Uphams Corner,and Fields Corner. The city is also planning to build a new firehouse on Meetinghouse Hill. The idea of blending these public uses with private housing starts is a smart one that should be incorporated into city plans as soon as possible. It is also possible that some of the city’s 35 municipal parking lots could be used for housing.
In last week’s rollout, the mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab said it would accept submissions through March 23. An informational meeting will take place on Feb. 15 at 26 Court St. in Boston. And there is more information about the process available online at the city’s website.
We applaud this sort of forward-thinking initiative by Walsh and his team. Ideally, it will trigger a fresh flow of redevelopment that will bring more affordable housing to our communities while improving the public amenities that we still depend on for basic city services.