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Transformation taking root in Maverick Square

East Boston neighborhood boasts new building projects, T station, and eateries, and drop in crime

Residents say the opening two years ago of the renovated Maverick Station has boosted the area. Residents say the opening two years ago of the renovated Maverick Station has boosted the area. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Jay Fitzgerald
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2011

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East Boston’s Maverick Square is undergoing a construction boom that’s revitalizing a neighborhood known only a few years as ago as having its share of urban problems.

Two years after the Maverick MBTA station underwent a $56 million renovation, the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center is now undertaking a $24 million building project on what used to be an ugly vacant lot in the heart of the square.

A new, $9.4 million Greenway Apartments complex, with 27 affordable rental units, is going up at 170-172 Maverick Square. The city has also launched a major multimillion-dollar renovation of the Heritage Apartments at 209 Sumner St., just off Maverick Square.

And a slew of new restaurants and stores have opened in the area in recent years, from the Habba Halal Meat Market to the highly popular Cactus Grill, both right on the square.

“It’s become amazingly vibrant,’’ said Tony Giacalone, the longtime owner of Tony’s Realty. “There’s more street life and people wanting to work and live here. I don’t see many ‘vacancy’ signs on shops anymore.’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said more improvements are on the way, including a program to spiff up the facades along Sumner Street and elsewhere.

“It’s a changed area - and it will keep getting better,’’ said Menino, noting the future benefits to Maverick Square and all of East Boston once long-stalled waterfront development projects get underway in the neighborhood.

Menino is the first to admit that Maverick Square has had its “problems’’ over the years - which business owners, residents, and activists are quick to confirm. The woes included crime, weed-covered vacant lots, empty storefronts, dilapidated buildings, and other urban woes in the largely lower-income and working-class neighborhood.

“Before, there were too many drunks outside my door,’’ said Rigoberto Villanueva, co-owner of the four-year-old Cactus Grill, which serves Mexican and El Salvadoran food to its largely Hispanic clientele.

“Today, it’s more busy,’’ said Villanueva, a native of El Salvador. “I have a great location.’’

Business leaders credit increased police patrols and neighborhood activism for the area’s recent reduction in crime. Menino estimated that crime is down about 20 percent in the neighborhood just this year.

But residents also say the opening of the renovated Maverick Station, after years of planning and construction, has been both a physical and psychological boost for the neighborhood.

The station now serves as a shiny, clean, and welcoming gateway to Maverick Square.

“The foot traffic has returned to the square after a few years hiatus due to the T construction,’’ said Clark Moulaison, executive director of East Boston Main Streets. “The station used to be in real rough shape, before and during construction. Now people stream out of it and head right into the square.’’

Soon hundreds of workers and patients will also be also regularly streaming in and out of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center’s 49,000-square-foot ambulatory center, at 20 Maverick Square. The building is about two-thirds finished, and the center hopes to open it later this year or early next year.

“The new building in Maverick Square will enable our center to serve the growing number of patients who rely on us for care,’’ said Jack Cradock, chief executive of the health center.

“Perhaps just as important, it will bring new vitality and new economic activity to Maverick Square. In a very real sense, the center is the engine for the square’s renewal.’’

The nonprofit health center, which received federal economic-stimulus money, plans to keep its headquarters at 10 Gove St., just two blocks away.

Another construction project underway is the East Boston Community Development Corp.’s new Greenway Apartments, a block off Maverick Square. Slated to be finished next year, the complex will include two- and three-bedroom subsidized apartments renting at about $1,000 to $1,100 each per month.

Funds for the 27-unit project came from a number of sources, including Bank of America and federal, state, and city governments, said Albert Caldarelli, president of the nonprofit East Boston Community Development Corp.

“People want to live here, but they can’t find affordable housing,’’ Caldarelli said. “There’s a tremendous need for family housing.’’

There’s also a growing demand for higher-end housing from young professionals who consider East Boston a bargain.

In the Maverick Square area, they are buying up more condos largely in the nearby Jeffries Point district, said Giacalone of Tony’s Realty. He said that working-class residents generally prefer to buy unrenovated triple-deckers in Maverick Square, with an average price of about $166 per square foot. But young professionals are buying refurbished condos at about $280 per square foot, Giacalone said, adding that he could sell more of the expensive condos if there were a larger supply.

Such an influx is making East Boston, with a population of about 43,000 and a Hispanic-majority neighborhood with Italian-American roots, even more distinct.

“You see more professional people and students here,’’ said Giacalone. “It’s become a much more diverse neighborhood.’’