Out of the Ashes – Chelsea’s ‘Box District’ the new up-and-coming neighborhood

Redevelopment often deals only with fancy, hip names and impressive plans on paper.

Architects and idea people with the best of intentions come up with new, hip names for an area and propose buildings and neighborhood amenities that never materialize.

It happens.

It hasn’t happened in – of all places – Gerrish Avenue, now coined the heart of Chelsea’s new Box District.

Just off of downtown Chelsea and steps from City Hall and the Library, Gerrish Avenue has had an infamous recent past. If there was any activity on the empty street, it was illicit activity.

Before that sad history, it was a heavy industrial area and there was a prevalence of paper box manufacturers there, including Standard Box, the Russell Box Factory, Janus Welding and Fabricating, Atlas Bedding and the Specialty Automated Machine Company.

Now, the newly coined Box District has started to live up to its new, hip name. Projects heretofore only on paper have materialized into market rate lofts and apartments and affordable rentals and homeownership opportunities, all blended together to form a brand new, up-and-coming neighborhood out of the ashes of the area’s forgettable past.

There are large loft units, a new park coming and even live music concerts in the summer on the sidewalk – all of it breathing life into an area left for dead long ago. This month, on July 13th, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) will consider the approval of the final two pieces of the development – some 74 units of mostly market-rate townhomes at 28 and 44 Gerrish Ave.

“It’s really exciting and I think what really inspires us is that from our community engagement and residential assessments…we now see residents getting to know their neighbors in this new neighborhood and they have become interested in and passionate about their neighborhood,” said Emily Loomis of Chelsea Neighborhood Developers (CND), the lynchpin organization in the project and the organization that conducted numerous planning and visioning meetings with local residents before any shovels even hit the ground. “Our director, Ann Houston, has had a very strong vision all along for Chelsea and the Box District in particular.”

One of the reasons for the success has been the public, private, non-profit partnership that has developed to assemble the mixed-income development.

CND has taken the reins on affordable housing, while Mitchell Properties of Boston has handled the market-rate developments. Meanwhile, city officials led by City Manager Jay Ash – a huge fan of the project – have chipped in to help plan the area, to clear the way with new zoning amendments and to leverage funding for amenities like a new park on the corner of Gerrish and Highland Streets.

“It’s worked well because we all share the vision of the Box District and think that great neighborhoods should have a mix of incomes in them,” said Loomis. “Our expertise is affordable housing…We’re great at developing affordable housing and doing community engagement. We also wanted that market rate neighborhood in the mix and that’s where Mitchell Properties comes in. Atlas Lofts is mostly a market rate project…I would say a good part of our success comes from that partnership between Chelsea Neighborhood Developers, the city and Mitchell.”

The redevelopment is at a unique point at the moment, as results are starting to be seen, and even more results are hitting the drawing board.

The market rate, 53-unit, Atlas Lofts project is wrapping up at the far end of Gerrish Avenue. The developer, Mitchell Properties, is leasing units already and looks to be finished completely by the end of the summer.

Already, CND has completed 41 affordable rental units at three sites on Gerrish Avenue, a project called the Janus Highland Apartments. Those units are already online and have residents comfortably living in their new homes.

Likewise, CND just finished 26 homeownership opportunities on Library Street where the old Spring Air Mattress Factory used to be. That project, made up of townhouses and called the Box Works Homes, blends affordable units and market-rate units together into a compact parcel at the far end of the district.

So far, Loomis said that the project is selling briskly, even in a stalled-out real estate market.

“We have sold almost all of the units, which is a really great achievement for this market right now,” she said. “We’re seeing a number of people who work or already live in Chelsea and we also have people coming from Malden, Somerville and Dorchester. We even have one family from Utah that moved to Chelsea to live in the Box District.”

She added that of the 26 units, there is one affordable unit left and two market-rate units. They range in price from $170,000 to $219,000.

Many pieces of the puzzle are already in place, and now the final pieces are ready to fall in place.

CND has already received permits to build 32 more affordable rental units at 55 Gerrish Ave., where an existing old industrial building will be leveled to make way for what will be called Highland Terrace Apartments.

“We’re hoping to start construction in spring 2011,” said Loomis. “We received financing from a variety of different public and private sources. We are going through these financial applications, which will really drive our timeline on the project.”

Across the street, what looks to be the icing on the cake of the Box District, is being considered this month by the city’s ZBA.

That project is located on the Standard Box parcels, just down the street from the Family Dollar building, and being developed by Mitchell Properties.

“The master plan for the Standard Box parcels – the fifth project to proceed – proposes a vibrant pedestrian-friendly and human scaled addition to the Box District,” read the company’s filing to the city. “These new homes will replace what is currently a mix of vacant buildings and vacant lots that at one time were the home to long-time Chelsea manufacturing companies.”

That first project, located at 44 Gerrish Ave. where the Standard Box building still sits, will proceed in two phases. Starting in the spring of 2011, the company hopes to build three buildings on the parcel. The final result at 44 Gerrish Ave. will be 44 units of mostly market-rate homes, including some reuse of the current building to assemble new townhomes that will hug the street and create a close neighborhood feeling.

“A two-story portion of the existing brick industrial building is proposed for adaptive re-use as three, 2-bedroom townhomes,” read the filing. “While the majority of the existing building scheduled for demolition is non-descript, the 2-story portion proposed for re-use is a charming, human-scaled building that, along with Atlas Lofts, provides a reminder of the area’s industrial past while contributing to the diverse and special characteristics of the new Box District neighborhood.”

As another positive, nearly all of the parking is proposed to be housed in garages underneath the development. Developers noted that 69 percent of the parking is covered, and 33 percent is in private garages.

The parcels at 28 Gerrish Ave. are more of a long-term project, with 30 units starting – perhaps – in the fall of 2012 or 2013.

That parcel will feature several buildings and together, the two parcels will feature a central courtyard and future access to the urban ring project – proposed for the train tracks that lie behind the development.

Of course the fate of the final pieces of the Box District will be sealed by getting funding, something that the project has been able to do so far in one of the worst credit markets in American history.

“One advantage we’ve had is because our work is focused on having a conceptual, involved strategy,” said Loomis. “By bringing life to this one district, you leverage what you can do. The projects start to build off each other. Funders have been really receptive to this vision. When they look at the Box District and see what we’ve done already, they are very positive. That has made us competitive for funding. The challenge is funding is extremely limited right now. It can take longer to get things done.”

Both hearings before the ZBA for 28 and 44 Gerrish Ave. will take place on Tuesday, July 13th, at 6 p.m. in City Hall.

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