On Broadway Developers Respond to Call for a More Vibrant Downtown

By Seth Daniel

At least three major housing proposals for the downtown Chelsea area have come into the City over the last month just as City Manager Tom Ambrosino has proposed to spend millions on the Business District and put out a call for more and better housing above existing businesses.

The City’s proposed spending plan, along with the quick response by developers, could radically transform the Broadway Business District in short time.

“We’re bullish on Chelsea; that’s for sure,” said Paul Scapicchio, a former Boston City Councilor who has proposed to redevelop the Choice Thru Education building on Pearl Street. “I’m high on Chelsea. It has had great leadership and has new great leadership that is doing things right. You go into Chelsea and City Hall and people are helpful and realistic and goal-oriented.”

Ambrosino has put a Capital Improvement Plan in to the City Council and a hearing will be held on that matter May 9. Within that plan, however, is a $400,000 stipend for mapping out the changes this coming summer. Next year, Ambrosino has called for spending $5 million in Capital funds on the Broadway corridor – improving pedestrian access, installing historic lighting and maybe even doing a storefront improvement program.

Along with that City investment that Ambrosino hopes to make – if the Council approves – has been a call for more housing development above the businesses on Broadway and the surrounding streets.

“I am absolutely supportive of creating some residential opportunities on top of retail buildings, particularly on the opposite side of Broadway,” he said. “If we want to create the vibrant downtown we need to create more residences in the downtown. Philosophically, I can appreciate that there is a problem with parking there because there is none. However, if you want to revive the downtown, I don’t know of any other way to do it. You have to take the good with the bad.”

Scapicchio and his business partner, Mark Heuber, have already purchased the Choice Thru Education building for $650,000 and plan to add three floors on top of the existing building (going from 15 feet to 45 feet) – which will be a retail use, perhaps a restaurant.

The plan calls for 20 units on the top three floors, with one studio, 10 one-bedrooms and nine two-bedrooms. There will be 11 parking spaces in a basement parking garage and ample bike racks.

It will first be heard by the Zoning Board of Appeals on May 10.

“We’ve been wanting to do a project in Chelsea that is right and we think we’ve found it,” Scapicchio said, adding that they have financial backing from East Boston Savings Bank. “A healthy community is a place people live, work and do their shopping. That’s what happens here in Chelsea and something we want to happen…There’s a demographic out there now that young people and others that aren’t interesting in using cars. The aren’t using cars as much as people once did…You’re in downtown Chelsea, and you’re close to downtown Boston. People can get there. You don’t necessarily need a car.”

That seems to be the mantra of the potential “revised” downtown area that the City hopes to create. It would be one where cars aren’t used as often and people have access to public transportation, pedestrian routes and even bicycle paths.

“There are changes in the way that people live,” said Ambrosino. “The old standard of two cars per unit may not be the reality these days, especially with young working professionals. Honestly, if you live in downtown Chelsea, you don’t need a vehicle to get to downtown Boston. The City has a fabulous transportation network that’s about to become even better with the Silver Line.”

The second proposal is smack dab on Broadway, at the Broadway Mini-Mall.

There, owner David Peach is looking to dramatically refurbish the old Masonic Building with Eastie developer Jay Duca.

Peach, who operates a bakery in the basement, would spend $3.1 million to renovate the existing three floors and to add a fourth floor. The plan calls for renovating the basement and first floor commercial/retail areas and adding 15 units of housing on the second, third and fourth floors. Two units would be affordable units.

There would be two one-bedrooms and three two-bedroom units on each of the residential floors. The housing would replace an old Masonic Theatre that still exists but is not safe to use.

Peach needs 31 spaces for the proposed project, but only has four – meaning he will need zoning relief for 27 spaces.

Therein, though, lies the idea behind the new downtown and the attraction of living in a vibrant commercial district and not owning a car. That’s the hope, of course.

The third plan by Jimmy Chan hopes to create 16 units out of an existing eight units above Heller’s Liquors and other existing businesses in a building next to Bellingham Square.

That plan calls for four two-bedroom units and four one-bedroom units on floors two and three. The existing floor plan has eight, six-bedroom units on the two floors.

“Things are changing,” said Scapicchio. “I grew up in the North End and there were five units in a building and not one car. We’re going to have parking, but not the numbers you would have expected with this project 20 years ago.”

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