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MIT students help plot 'path forward' for East Boston business district

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  April 5, 2011 12:02 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)


Diane Modica, first vice president of the East Boston Chamber of Commerce, commented on the students’ findings as City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina (at far right) and other community members listened.

The keys to revitalizing East Boston’s business district may lie in building bridges among its ethnically and linguistically diverse populations and finding solutions to space issues in this dense urban area.

Those broad themes encompassed much of the discussion at a recent community forum hosted by East Boston Main Streets to discuss how to best harness the neighborhood’s potential for commercial growth. The meeting showcased preliminary findings in the research of 15 MIT students into the neighborhood’s economic potential, demographics, assets, and challenges.

Titled “East Boston Main Streets: A Path Forward,” their semester-long project calls on the students to research the neighborhood and make recommendations for the business district as part of a graduate-level urban planning course called Revitalizing Urban Main Streets.

Using government data, their own observations, and interviews and surveys of local residents, shoppers and business owners, the students are examining the neighborhood’s Main Streets District. That area stretches from Liberty Plaza and the beginning of Bennington Street in the north, down through Central and Maverick squares along Meridian Street, and into Jeffries Point along Sumner Street to its intersection with Cottage Street.

The presentation emphasized East Boston’s character as a historically diverse, mostly working-class area of shifting immigrant populations and a tradition of entrepreneurship that contributes to the vibrancy of the neighborhood and its appealing mix of affordable, high-quality restaurants.

“That, we think, is really one of the most important and exciting characteristics about East Boston, is that it really is a place for people to start,” said Joe Jenkins, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “People come to East Boston as immigrants because it’s affordable, and because of the diversity they feel welcome in the area. But it’s also a place where people stay, and they make their lives here. And that’s what leads to this great diverse and vibrant community that has all these great stores and restaurants with this range of cuisines that you can’t get anywhere else in Boston.”

But as a landing point for many immigrants, it has a higher rate of rental housing than the city as a whole and a somewhat more transient population. Those factors combined with the linguistic isolation of many immigrants who speak only their native language can create barriers to investment in the community and to cooperation between different groups.

The physical conditions of the business district create further obstacles, the students said, with mostly older buildings that lack large retail spaces and with parking that many of their interviewees described as inadequate. They also cited concerns about the lack of street landscaping and pedestrian amenities, trash accumulation on streets, public spaces that were underutilized and a number of storefronts that are inadequately maintained or have too little or too much signage.

Team member Jeremy Steinemann said the profusion of large, brightly colored signs seen on some storefronts can help “provide an identity to the area” but recommended business owners adhere to the East Boston Main Streets guidelines that call for uniform signage in the district rather than “visual chaos and clutter.”

But some community members defended those storefronts, saying they enliven the streetscape and make businesses easier to locate. Anjie Preston, a longtime neighborhood resident and vice president of the board at Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, said she appreciated the look of uniform signage on certain blocks but also enjoyed the unique look of storefronts with eye-catching signs.

“To me, we need a medium, because having all the signs [consistent], that looks beautiful, yes. Based on what it may have used to look like, it’s a big improvement. But if the whole area of Main Street looked like that, it would be boring. I wouldn’t be able to find anything because they would all look the same,” Preston said, to laughter from the crowd.

Diane Modica, first vice president of the East Boston Chamber of Commerce, commended the students’ work and asked them to look more at how the waterfront could be used as an asset for economic development.

“That could be … the single biggest asset in the community,” Modica said. “It’s something that we should really focus on in terms of small business and other kinds of businesses.”

Modica also suggested that the revitalization plan could include a project already begun by the Chamber of Commerce to assist small businesses with branding and marketing.

The students identified retail strengths in restaurants as well as clothing and jewelry stores, with many more such businesses in East Boston than in the adjacent communities of Everett, Chelsea and Revere.

They estimated more than $1 billion in combined annual expenditures by East Boston households and by the Latino population of neighboring communities — a group they viewed as a natural market for the area’s many Latino-owned shops and restaurants.

“This strong local market potential points to the huge potential of tapping into these markets, and particularly the Latino market,” said student Stefanie Ritoper.

But to better reach that market, local businesses must overcome the barriers between different ethnic and linguistic groups.

City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, a lifelong resident of East Boston, joined others in calling for greater outreach to the neighborhood’s Latino residents and business owners, few of whom attended the public forum.

“You’ve mentioned that one of the challenges here is that strong divide … how do we bridge that together?” LaMattina asked. “We need to look at that and see where are those barriers that we need to address as a neighborhood.”

Team member Rob Crauderueff said they had heard an interest among a number of business owners in collective

“Things like collective marketing, special events, a collaborative website — all of these things are coming up recurringly as top priorities, and I think that would do a lot to increase that communication,” Crauderueff said.

Main Streets board member Elizabeth Tanefis asked the students to also look at the number of young professionals who have settled in the area in recent years and to explore how to draw those residents into doing more shopping at local businesses.

The students will continue their research through April and plan to hold two additional community meetings in May to gather additional community response and share their findings. To see a slideshow of their initial findings, visit http://www.ebmainstreets.com/resources/ebms-mit-project-english.pdf.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)


MIT student Rob Crauderueff led the community discussion of the students’ findings.

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