Community Profile

Boston's Fenway section undergoing strong comeback

By Kathleen Howley, Globe Correspondent, 12/18/1999

Fenway at a glance
Incorporated: 1630, as part of Boston
Area: 1 square mile
Population: 33,000
Tax rate: residential $13.44, commercial $37.04
Form of government: mayor, city
Council services: Boston Edison, Boston Gas, city water and sewer public
Transportation: MBTA trolleys and buses
Cultural/recreational: Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Fenway Park, Boston Conservatory of Music, Symphony Hall, Fenway Art Center, Fenway Garden Society, Back Bay Fens
A bout half a century ago, the graceful apartment buildings that line the Fenway streets adjacent to Frederick Law Olmsted's Emerald Necklace were considered a chic alternative to Boston's Back Bay or Beacon Hill. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

In the 1960s, though, the neighborhood began to a four-decades-long decline. Most of the retail stores closed, including a cobbler shop, a tailor, several drugs stores, and a host of corner stores.

Apartment rents were among the city's lowest, attracting college students and low-income families. Many owners let their buildings deteriorate.

Now, however, the residential blocks to the west and east of the Fens again are in demand. Several large apartment buildings have been refurbished in the last year, and rents are rising.

Fenway, one of the city's smallest neighborhoods, now is well on its way to becoming one of its most expensive.

Currently rents of more than $1,600 a month are not unusual for two-bedroom apartments, more than double the cost in 1992, according to a recent survey by the Fenway Community Development Corporation. A small studio with a closet-size kitchen rents for $900 or more.

"Because such an overwhelming majority of the housing stock is rental units, the area is much more sensitive to economic cycles than other Boston neighborhoods," said Carl Koechlin, executive director of the FCDC, a nonprofit affordable housing developer.

Of the 13,000 housing units in the Fenway, about 11,000 are apartments, about 1,500 are condominiums that are being rented, and about 500 are owner-occupied condominiums, he said.

In the last few years, many longtime residents with moderate or low incomes have been forced to move out of the neighborhood, Koechlin said.

"I'm not talking about destitute people. I'm talking about people like teachers and librarians. You need those kind of people to give a neighborhood roots," he said.

As one indicator of the strength of the Fenway's rental market, the Abbey Group, a Boston development company, is building a 132-unit residential building that it plans to rent.

"They could have been condominiums, but in the end we made the decision to go with rentals," said Robert Epstein, president of the Abbey Group.

Lease prices for the seven-story apartment building, set in the West Fens, have not been set yet, he said. But Epstein said a one-bedroom unit could start at more than $1,500 a month. Units will be available for occupancy in the spring, he said.

"We already have a long list of names, and we get at least two or three calls every day from people who are interested in renting, Epstein said.

His company also is redeveloping the 1.5-million-square-foot Sears building into an office and retail complex called Landmark Center.

The art-deco structure, built on the edge of the Fenway in 1928, will begin opening in the spring, Epstein said.

"I think the reality of Landmark Center happening has had a giant impact on escalating interest and values. And, I think it's going to continue. There will be a huge amount of jobs there and, with stores and movie theaters and restaurants, a huge amount of activity," he said.

Neighborhood resident Kimberly Konrad said that while she supports the reuse of the historic Sears building, she is concerned about the possibility of other "megadevelopments" in the neighborhood.

Several proposals for large-scale developments are in the works, said Konrad, including the plan for a new stadium for the Boston Red Sox to be built on 14 acres across from its current seven-acre site.

"That is not the kind of development we are looking for. The neighborhood would love to see residential or mixed use - with retail on the first floor and housing above - but what we have gotten is proposals for more megadevelopments," said Konrad, president of Save Fenway Park, a group hoping to block the new stadium.

The neighborhood is particularly susceptible to large-scale developments because of land availability, she said.

Currently, Konrad said, there is no overall plan guiding development in the Fenway.

The zoning dates to the '50s. Now, there is talk of rezoning, but without a master plan it's not based on any vision," she said.

Konrad said that eight years ago, a coalition of neighborhood groups approved a master development plan, but it was ignored by the city.

"It's sitting on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust," she said.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 12/18/1999.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
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