On paper, the plan to rebuild Charlestown’s crumbling public housing complex seems straightforward: Let a developer build 2,100 high-end apartments on the 28-acre site and use the proceeds to create 1,100 new homes for the poor.
But on the snug streets of one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods, the project is proving a bit more complicated.
The Boston Housing Authority and the development company, Corcoran-Jennison Associates, are facing stiff pushback against their experimental approach to redeveloping one of the city’s biggest public housing projects, which involves using a huge number of private-market units to underwrite new housing for the poor. Residents say that tripling the number of apartments would be just too much for Charlestown to handle.
The new complex, they worry, would create a wall of six-story apartment blocks along the tidy streets of small homes and row houses around Bunker Hill and add hundreds more cars to Charlestown’s already-crowded roads.
“This is going to be like a tsunami that comes in and flattens Charlestown,” said Eric Philippi, who lives several blocks from the housing complex and has joined with neighbors in advocating for a smaller project. “If you don’t fight, you just get swept away.”
The debate frames one of the central challenges facing the city as it tries to leverage Boston’s hot real estate market to remake housing for some of its poorest residents. In Charlestown, South Boston, and elsewhere, the Housing Authority is soliciting developers to upgrade some of the largest projects in exchange for building market-rate housing on the sites.
The first big one is in Charlestown, where the Housing Authority in 2015 picked Corcoran and California-based SunCal from among four bidders. The companies’ $1 billion overhaul would include 3,200 apartments and condos in as many as 14 multistory buildings.
Until then, Boston’s epic building boom had largely passed Charlestown by. The reaction from neighbors was swift and often negative. Residents uniformly said they want to see the public housing complex improved — just not at this size.
“That is a huge project,” longtime Charlestown resident Diane Valle said. “It took a lot of people by surprise.”
The Housing Authority’s administrator, Bill McGonagle, said he expected such concerns from neighbors. But the BHA, he said, has a simple math problem: There isn’t government money to fix up public housing, so that leaves private developers, who, without public subsidies, need to go big.
“My primary interest here is replacing the 1,100 deeply affordable units we have in Charlestown,” McGonagle said. “All those market-rate units help me do that.”
Philippi, Valle, and other neighbors are floating a scaled-down plan with 1,625 units drawn up by retired architect and planner Sy Mintz, who worked on Corcoran’s development of Columbia Point in Dorchester in the 1980s.
As was done there, Mintz’s plan would reuse most of the existing low-slung brick buildings in the Charlestown project, sprucing them up and adding one floor. That would avoid the cost of demolition and new foundations while keeping the end result the same scale as the surrounding blocks. Unlike Corcoran’s version, Mintz said his complex would not look out of place in Charlestown.
“We want to see if we can remove some of the stigma of public housing,” Mintz said. “And we want to make it feel like part of the neighborhood.”
‘This is going to be like a tsunami that comes in and flattens Charlestown.’Eric Philippi, a neighbor advocating for a smaller project
Housing Authority officials say they’re skeptical of a plan that relies so heavily on rehab. This is a rare chance to transform the Charlestown complex, both physically and socially, and to entice middle-class residents to what has long been an island of poverty in a wealthy neighborhood. And they’re not convinced rehab would be cheaper.
“The basic configuration needs to change,” BHA deputy administrator Kate Bennett said. “Even if we keep the shells and bust out the insides, the costs are similar to new construction, and then you’re left with something much more limited.”
Corcoran is revising its proposal, down to about 2,800 apartments, with taller buildings bunched in the center of the complex and shorter ones where it meets the rest of the neighborhood. That’s in response to residents’ concerns about the height of the towers, Joe Corcoran said. But the developers cannot reduce the total number of units below 2,800, he said.
“This is what it takes to replace the 1,100 units that we need to replace,” Corcoran said. “It’s not a negotiating tool. It’s the truth.”
There might be more negotiations, though. City officials are studying the idea of putting some of the low-income units in other new buildings under development in Charlestown, which might allow a smaller project by Corcoran. Valle’s group also hopes the city can find money to subsidize the project, which could reduce the need for market-rate housing, as well.
The debate about the Corcoran plan became so heated the Boston Planning & Development Agency agreed to a three-month moratorium of its review to give the parties more time. That time-out is now over, and the conversations are picking up again.
“It’s a dance, and we’re trying to find the sweet spot,” McGonagle said. “We’re getting there.”
For the public housing tenants, a solution can’t come soon enough. Mimi Tovar is raising five children in the complex and is active in the Charlestown Residents Alliance. She has lived there for six years and loves the sense of community. But her building is 75 years old and is in tough shape.
“There’s mold. There’s dust. There’s poor ventilation,” Tovar said. “We’re looking forward to the project. We don’t want to live in these conditions for another five or 10 years.”Tim Logan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.