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Boston Housing Authority to redevelop Whittier Street housing

Martin Desmarais | 5/21/2014, 9:55 a.m.
The Boston Housing Authority plans to revamp the current Whittier Street public housing development and the surrounding Roxbury neighborhood in ...
The Boston Housing Authority has released the draft of The Whittier Neighborhood Transformation Plan, which includes 553 units of mixed-use housing and 50,000 square feet of commercial and institutional space. The overall project has an estimated cost of $339 million. (Image courtesy of The Architectural Team)

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(Image courtesy of The Architectural Team)

Redevelopment plans for the Whittier Street Apartments public housing development call for the current 200 affordable housing units to be replaced with 200 newly constructed affordable units, as well as an additional 353 units of mixed-use housing.

The Boston Housing Authority plans to revamp the current Whittier Street public housing development and the surrounding Roxbury neighborhood in a $339 million project that includes housing, commercial development, health and human services, public safety initiatives and job development.

The BHA has spent the last year working on the plan — including input from neighborhood residents — but now is looking for additional input before coming up with a final plan by October.

At the heart of the effort is the 61-year-old Whittier Street Apartments which, according to city officials, is overdue for being replaced. The city studied the development in 2012 and estimated rehabilitation costs at over $40 million, a number that pushed planners toward the target of tearing down the housing and building it anew.

Besides the need for new housing to replace the old public housing, the Whittier Street Apartments and a development project surrounding it ticked off all the boxes to qualify for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods Grant, namely to re-develop distressed housing with affordable housing, but also to be part of a larger effort to revamp and economically boost the surrounding area.

Boston received a 2012 Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant to develop what the city is calling the Whittier Neighborhood Transformation Plan. The final plan that will be developed by this fall will then be submitted to HUD for grant approval. The effort is a collaboration of the Boston Housing Authority, Preservation of Affordable Housing, Madison Park Development Corporation and the Whittier Tenant Task Force.

According to Kate Bennett, deputy administrator for planning and sustainability at the Boston Housing Authority, the Choice Neighborhoods grant — expected to be $30 million — is the critical seed money to get the entire project off the ground. But it also widens the scope of the work.

“Choice Neighborhoods really changes the game a bit in terms of expanding the impact under the grant beyond just housing revitalization into the people’s side and the neighborhood opportunities and services,” Bennett said. “We are not just taking down deteriorated public housing and rebuilding it.”

Choice Neighborhood money necessitates economic and community development in the area around the development of housing — without the added focus on the neighborhood and people, the HUD grant would not be approved.

“The focus on Whittier Street was really that we felt that it was a site that was in need of revitalization, but also had a lot of surrounding amenities and opportunities that would make for a successful implementation,” Bennett said.

The city defines the Whittier neighborhood as roughly one square mile, boarded by Tremont Street on the North end, flanked by Melnea Cass Boulevard, then outlined by Hampden Street into Blue Hill Avenue and stretching down past Dudley Square.

An estimated 9,300 residents live in the neighborhood in just under 4,000 households.

The neighborhood is made up of 59 percent black or African American residents and 34 percent Hispanic or Latino residents. The majority of the households are low-income: 75 percent receive housing or other public subsidies and 47 percent are below the federal poverty level (compared with 21 percent citywide). The unemployment rate is almost double the city’s rate at 19 percent compared to 10 percent citywide.