From industrial to desirable: rebuilding Chelsea

New homes replace defunct factories

The Box District in Chelsea is being revived with the construction of new housing. The Box District in Chelsea is being revived with the construction of new housing. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / November 26, 2007

CHELSEA - Dozens of construction workers in hard hats are putting the finishing touches on a sprawling condominium complex in an area known as the Box District, adding a splash of color to a neighborhood long overshadowed by a massive red-brick factory that blew litter onto lawns and choked residential streets with traffic.

"If you look around now, you see all the new homes being built. . . . It's really beautiful," said Ingrid Garcia, who, after renting in Chelsea for 19 years, is scheduled to move into a newly constructed, three-bedroom house on Liberty Street, just off Broadway near the downtown area.

The Box District is one of several neighborhoods that city officials are focusing on in their attempts to transform the 1.8-square-mile city into a residential community and make it a top choice for young couples, single professionals, and others seeking to live minutes from downtown Boston.

Chelsea was a significant player in an industrial revolution decades ago, and bulky factories were built in modest neighborhoods as a convenience for workers, but when the wheels of the revolution fell off, the factories closed down.

The city also fell into a fiscal crisis that led to state receivership in 1991. After regaining its financial autonomy in 1995, city administrators embarked on an ambitious plan that focused on attracting new residents and businesses to boost the tax base, allowing the city to better its schools, add police officers, and offer improved city services.

Planners scoured the city 12 years ago, looking for "industrial-residential conflict," City Manager Jay Ash said. They identified five neighborhoods, including the Box District, where factories were located next to homes. The Standard Box Co., from which the neighborhood derives its name, closed after a fire in the mid-1990s. The company, located on Gerrish Avenue, made cardboard boxes.

The city began acquiring the factories with a plan to turn them into residential units that would blend into the neighborhoods, boosting the housing stock and removing eyesores. Standard Box will be transformed into lofts next year. And, in homage to the neighborhood's past, decorative street lights with boxes at the base will be installed.

"This truly represents the future direction of the city," Ash said recently during a telephone interview.

Public and private developers are on pace to build at least 1,500 new houses and apartments by 2010 in the five neighborhoods. With 12,000 existing units, the new units would represent an almost 13 percent increase to Chelsea's housing stock.

Earlier this month, Ash cut the ribbon on the Box District's new developments as state and local officials applauded and new homeowners beamed. In the coming days, Ash is scheduled to attend another ground-breaking ceremony, this time for a 160-unit development near Admiral's Hill.

Ann Houston, executive director of Chelsea Neighborhood Developers, which is overseeing several construction projects, said, "The changes are really dramatic. Chelsea is just a fascinating city that is just coming into its own."

In 1997, the city began a series of major developments, utilizing faded factory buildings, as part of the Everett Avenue Urban Renewal District. Three components of that renewal plan - a hotel, a biotech company, and a Stop & Shop Supermarket - have been built. City planners are waiting for state approval to build the remaining two components - another hotel and two large housing units.

Along with building new homes, the city is focusing on quality-of-life issues, relying on a web of surveillance cameras to help the police sweep out crime, particularly gang activity, drug use, and prostitution. The police force will increase from 85 to 93 officers by the end of next year, according to Captain Brian Kyes.

The city also has attempted to tackle a longstanding complaint among residents that a pelt-sorting facility and a petroleum company located on the waterfront emanate foul odors. The smells dissipated, according to some residents, after the city encouraged the companies to invest in air-filtration systems.

Chelsea operates with an annual budget of about $110 million. About $35 million of that comes from taxpayers. Ash said that when all the new construction is done and the units are filled, tax revenues should increase by about $3 million.

"The good news today is that the efforts we made over the last dozen years seem to be working," he said. "General Electric made two major property acquisitions in the last two years and could potentially finance 400 of the 1,500 units we are building. This is a company that could invest their dollars anywhere in the world, and they're saying Chelsea."

The latest census figures put the city's population at roughly 35,000, of which one in three residents are foreign born.

Garcia, an immigrant from Guatemala, said she expects to move into her new home in January.

"It's so exciting, a new year and a new home," she said.

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