Fighting the wind on a cold December afternoon, planners and officials from the City of Boston meandered down Braintree Street, an unassuming Allston backstreet running parallel to the Massachusetts Turnpike. In the midst of a walking tour for the city’s Imagine Boston initiative, leaders such as the Chief of Arts and Culture as well as representatives from the BPDA and Harvard detailed the street’s current status and the plans for its future. Rising on the street today is an 80-unit apartment building targeted towards young professionals and grad students. The developers claim that the apartments, mostly studios and one-bedroom units, will cater to those who cannot afford to pay the luxury rates of Troy Boston or Ink Block closer to the city center. The multi-story development will stand out among much of its surroundings, which remains primarily industrial. Repair shops, moving companies, delivery truck lots, and other traditional industrial institutions still make up the majority of the street, rising no more than a story from the ground. It seems almost certain that such businesses have only a short time
left on Braintree Street before a new developer comes knocking, eager to snatch up land on which to build more housing. Many city officials and those behind Imagine Boston are praising this transition. With housing prices skyrocketing and the city’s population growing, a housing shortage is imminent unless areas of the city which were not traditionally residential are converted to units Boston desperately needs to house the 35,000 who move in each year. For Imagine Boston, the solution is continuing and expanding the conversion of traditionally industrial areas such as Braintree Street, Newmarket, the South End, and the Seaport to mixed-use neighborhoods. These areas of the city are already facing increasing pressure to sell their valuable, centrally-located land to (often luxury) housing developers. Just this year on Harrison Avenue in the South End, Ho Kong Bean Sprout Co and Quinzani’s Bakery, longtime suppliers of the Boston’s restaurants, joined many other long-established businesses in selling off their valuable real estate. For Ho Kong and Quinzani’s clients, this just means finding a new supplier, likely further from the city center like Piantedosi Bakery in Malden. However, for many of the immigrants (mostly Chinese) who were employed there, the transition will not be so simple. Losing their jobs will put an even greater stress on their budgets, already strained by ballooning housing costs in Chinatown and elsewhere. Like the bakeries, recent immigrants may find themselves forced to relocate from traditionally immigrant-friendly neighborhoods in the city center such as Chinatown to suburbs where rent is more affordable. Meanwhile, white middle and upper-middle class suburbanites are eager to move to take their places, at Ink Block in the South End, at 61-83 Braintree Street, and at One Greenway in Chinatown.
With low-rise, low-density industrial neighborhoods in danger, the only choice for this section of Boston’s economy and urban fabric to remain is for traditional industry to be replaced by institutions such as the 119 Braintree building. Just steps from the new development on Braintree Street, a new type of industrial land use is being prototyped. In contrast with traditional low-density industrial development, 119 Braintree rises multiple stories, accommodating businesses such as light manufacturing, graphic and interior design, photography, and architecture. The unassuming building represents a shift in what defines ‘industrial’ land use in Boston, a shift that has already reshaped New York’s neighborhoods.
Like in Brooklyn, where shipyards have been replaced by notebook manufacturers and auto repair shops with chocolate makers, Boston must be prepared for a new type of industry that can withstand development pressures and can accommodate the City’s needs as it grows. However, the City must be sure that the new “evolved” industry and new housing is inclusive. Ensuring low-income and recently-immigrated citizens have access to entrepreneurship and employment opportunities as well as affordable housing is crucial to preserving the diversity and historical character of Boston. The industrial transition must be an central part of the City’s efforts to do so.
In the coming years, this transition will transform Boston physically, economically, and demographically. The Imagine Boston 2030 plan must lay out the City’s response to these changes. Should the city take measures to preserve long-established industrial land uses alongside new development? Will there be a response to growing pressure on low-income workers threatened with being priced out of their traditional neighborhoods? Or will the City let the market determine its future? For Marty Walsh, the answers to these questions will define his mayorship and its legacy.