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Dorchester development sparks debate

Few affordable units planned for large project

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
Dorchester development sparks debate
An architect’s rendering of the Dorchester Bayside City development. BPDA WEBSITE

Jared Hicks sees a vibrant community and a spot with the potential to add value when he looks out at the vacant parking lot of the former Bayside Expo Center in Dorchester.

“It feels like a neighborhood to me, with the Boston skyline in the background,” he observed during a recent interview.

Hicks, 29, lives about a 15-minute drive away from the area where the Columbia Point housing project, a shopping mall and the expo center once stood.

The 1,300-space parking lot is now a site of competing visions for Dorchester as residents struggle over its future. The conflict has exposed neighborhood divisions along racial and class lines and stoked tensions between homeowners and renters.

Once known to draw large crowds to the annual New England Spring Flower Show, the waterside parcel is situated near South Boston’s Carson Beach and the JFK-UMass station on the Red Line. More recently, the prime real estate has drawn interest from developers seeking space in Boston’s hot market.

UMass Boston purchased the site for $18 million in 2010. Since then, proposals have been made to build a soccer stadium for the New England Revolution and a village for athletes during the 2024 Summer Olympics.

The stadium plan was scrapped after failed negotiations between team owner Robert Kraft and the Boston Teachers Union, which has its headquarters beside the former expo center. Public opposition sank Boston’s bid for the Olympics.

What’s proposed at the site now is a mixed-use redevelopment marketed as a “catalyst for community transformation” for its potential to generate jobs, improve climate resilience, create multimodal transit pathways and attract other investments to the peninsula.

The plan, which includes an adjacent parcel for a total of 33.5 acres, features mainly research and office space, along with 1,740 housing units.

Supporters and skeptics agree the proposal, dubbed Dorchester Bayside City, could remake the area, but disagree whether its impact would be positive for the city’s most diverse neighborhood.

“We don’t want another Seaport, which is sterile, soulless, lifeless and clearly not meant for current Boston residents,” Hicks said. “That’s a playground for exclusively white and wealthy people, and we don’t need that in Dorchester.”

That major redevelopment project had promised to be a place for all Bostonians, but wound up falling far short of that goal.

Hicks, who is biracial, falls into the crowd skeptical of the Bayside plan — the mostly Black and Hispanic working-class renters who can’t afford to buy homes and fear the rapid pace of development will eventually run them out of the neighborhood.

He and other members of the housing advocacy group Dorchester Not for Sale expressed their concerns during a recent public meeting.

By the time Hicks made his comments, though, City Councilor Frank Baker, who represents the area, had heard enough. The two had a tense exchange that has since been replayed on social media.

“To drive home what he was driving home, I just thought he was a little over the top,” Baker said in an interview last week.

Baker, a lifelong Dorchester resident and a supporter of the Bayside project, said he “probably should’ve just closed my mouth” that day, but felt compelled to speak on behalf of longtime homeowners in nearby Savin Hill and Andrew Square, who have been consulted closely about this project.

The mostly white group, he said, was being mislabeled as exclusive.

“I’d say that’s a generalization that plays out over and over and over, insinuating that older white people from this area don’t know how to be fair,” Baker said, pushing back against the idea that the neighborhood’s historical segregation is behind concerns about the project.

Baker, who has represented the majority-minority area since 2011, has recently come under scrutiny for his moderate positions on the increasingly progressive Boston City Council. He concedes housing is a top concern, but he says the redevelopment probably isn’t the best place to build and sell new homes.

Developer Accordia Partners controls the site under the terms of its 99-year lease with UMass Boston. About 25 percent of the square footage is planned for housing.

Baker suggested the project has the potential to prompt transportation improvements to a nearby chokepoint rotary, Morrissey Boulevard and the JFK-UMass station. Development plans contain a list of potential improvements, but no firm commitments to execute them.

Kirk Sykes, Accordia’s managing partner, said he understands why a community populated mostly by people of color could be concerned about how they can participate in his company’s proposal. He said that Accordia has “an absolute responsibility” to make that participation possible.

“I think housing, in a city like Boston, is always a big topic,” he said.

Documents from the Boston Planning and Development Agency state the project will follow the city’s policy and make 13 percent of its units affordable. They are to range in size from micro-units to three-bedrooms.

Sykes, who is African American, agrees housing units for rent and for sale are both important to building a vibrant community. But housing concerns, he said, don’t automatically outweigh all others.

“I think one of the important issues that needs to be discussed is the balance between job creation, business opportunities, housing creation and access to the site,” he said. “We see them all as important.”

Sykes said the project could be revised after more public feedback.

He also pointed to the architecture firm DREAM Collaborative and public relations firm Proverb, two minority-owned businesses within the Bayside team that represent the diversity of business partners guiding the project. 

Hicks and others with Dorchester Not for Sale said they want to see deeply affordable housing units with adequate space for renting families.

“I worry that that’s not going to happen, not because people don’t want it, or don’t mean for it to happen,” he explained. “But if they’re not specifically intentional and laser-focused on the needs of the most vulnerable in the community, the most marginalized, then ultimately, people will not be served.”

If built, the site will cast its shadow on Harbor Point on the Bay, a mixed-income housing complex that rose from the rubble of the Columbia Point project into what many consider to be the nation’s first successful redevelopment of public housing.

Developers of the old Bayside center said they plan to reveal more details about their housing strategy next month.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan for GBH News 89.7.