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DIVERSITY BOSTON

Dreams in Dorchester

How one new development is strengthening a neighborhood’s multicultural identity

John Cruz, developer of Harvard Commons in Dorchester. John Cruz, developer of Harvard Commons in Dorchester. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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John Cruz spent much of his childhood by the side of his carpenter father, pounding nails and sanding homes in some of Massachusetts’ swankier suburbs. He learned early on that people live differently - some in the crowded triple-deckers and high-rise apartments near his Dorchester home and others in spacious houses with landscaped lawns.

So when Cruz grew up and expanded his father’s business, he dreamed of bringing the quality housing he’d seen in the suburbs into the city neighborhoods he loves: Harvard Commons is the realization of that dream.

The development, still in its beginning stages, now includes 15 colorful, custom-built homes, from 1,800 to 3,500 square feet, on a wide sidewalk-lined street at the former site of the Boston State Hospital in Dorchester. Homeowners have been purchasing the properties since 2007 for prices ranging from $419,000 to $590,000 - values significantly higher than the median home price in the area, known more for affordable housing than newly minted homes.

Cruz, who owns one of the state’s largest black-owned development companies, believes he is helping the community by attracting higher-income professionals to what was once a neighborhood dumping ground, littered with trash, discarded mattresses, and burned-out cars. His buyers are an ethnically diverse and largely highly educated group - drawn to the site because of its convenient location and amenities of the suburbs. They hold jobs in law enforcement, banking, technology, and higher education; some of them have PhDs. In contrast, the median household income for the Dorchester ZIP code is $36,025, and fewer than 18 percent of people 25 years or older hold bachelor’s or advanced degrees, according to the census.

“This is what the communities of color need more to stabilize,’’ says Cruz, 68, whose family comes from Cape Verde. “Any of these people could have lived anywhere. They chose to live here. It makes me feel we are doing the right thing.’’

The project is part of a multiprong effort to improve the site of the Boston State Hospital, a facility for the mentally ill that has been closed since 1979. It neighbors the residential community Olmsted Green, another new development of rentals and town homes, as well as the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Boston Nature Center, offering two miles of trails and boardwalks.

Evelyn Friedman, the city’s housing chief and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, says she is thrilled to see both affordable housing and market-rate homes springing up at the site.

“It used to be a very desolate area,’’ she says. “This brings a new liveliness.’’

Jim Clark, a 69-year-old retiree who has sat on a citizen advisory committee for the hospital site for 26 years, praises Harvard Commons. “These are professional people who wouldn’t necessarily be moving into Dorchester if it wasn’t for this development,’’ says Clark.

But while neighbors are happy to see improvements, the housing downturn has affected sales at both Harvard Commons and Olmsted Green.

Olmsted Green put 19 market-rate condominiums up for sale in 2009, but indefinitely delayed plans for 268 more when sales stagnated. Prices have dropped about 15 percent since then.

Cruz, too, hoped to be much farther ahead on sales in the development, slated for 54 homes, but he says he hasn’t wavered on prices. Because he builds each house with the participation of a homeowner, he says he’s not sitting on a lot of unused inventory and can afford to wait out the economic slowdown.

Home buyers keep trickling in. The most recent one, Lorenzo Thompson, committed to purchase a new home for $472,000 and expects to move in the spring.

“It was a good opportunity for me to build something fresh from the ground up,’’ says Thompson, 42, who is a lieutenant in the Boston Fire Department. “It is a good investment.’’

Jimmy Wang and his wife, Joy, bought a five-bedroom home in 2007 for $550,000, with a finished basement and upgraded kitchen cabinets, granite countertops, and appliances.

Wang, who has a PhD in mathematics, says he and his wife, herself in a PhD program, chose Harvard Commons because they want to stay in Boston and take public transportation to work. He also loves the spacious home and the front and back yards, which he tends lovingly, planting roses, bougainvillea, and a line of arborvitae.

“We have a lot of friends who moved to the suburbs,’’ says Wang, 55. “We like to live in the city.’’

When Rod Murphy and his wife, Vanessa, first saw Harvard Commons, still only one street long with several empty lots, they worried about making a poor investment.

But eventually they were won over by the well-built homes and diverse community. They decided to be pioneers, committing $480,000 to the house and neighborhood. Rod is black, and his wife is Mexican.

“Being interracial, when we have kids we want our kids to interact with other people’’ of color, he says. “You have to see the vision.’’

Jenifer B. McKim is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at jmckim@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jbmckim.

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