The Uphams Corner Implementation Process 2017-2019:
Developing a Plan for an Arts and Innovation District – Without Displacement
By Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning1, July 2019
Note: This case study covers the 2017-2019 time period. See below for more recent updates.
A three-tiered, homemade chocolate cake and a live hip-hop performance with a jazz accompaniment might seem out of place at a community meeting on development. But out of the ordinary is what the City of Boston, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), and residents of the Dudley/Uphams Corner corridor are striving for as they plan the redevelopment of Upham’s Corner, an arts, commercial, and residential hub in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.
This community meeting, held under a full moon on the first day of spring (March 20, 2019), is better described as a celebration. That night, the near 150 attendants were celebrating the work of the previous two years to articulate a community vision for the neighborhood and solidify it into requests for proposals (RFP) to develop multiple sites in the heart of the district. The vision, admittedly ambitious, involves revitalizing the historic Strand Theater and redeveloping two former bank buildings and a municipal parking lot into a new Boston Public Library branch, affordable housing, commercial space and storefronts. And all of this with the goal of development without displacement.
In a community that has been the focus of much planning over the past several decades, but little change, it remains to be seen how the vision can be implemented. Is it too visionary, requiring more community benefits than developers are accustomed to providing? Is it not visionary enough, inviting gentrification and displacement that it intends to avoid? How does the community remain in control of the benefits brought by this development? These are the questions that participants of the Upham’s Corner Implementation Process have been grappling with since the process began in Fall 2017.
In Upham’s Corner, a commercial and residential district in northern Dorchester, an ambitious and experimental redevelopment project is underway that could have major implications for urban planning and redevelopment, in Boston and beyond. In this case, rather than unilaterally develop the district to maximize real estate value, the City of Boston has committed to a redevelopment process that not only includes residents but shares coordination of the process with a neighborhood organization, DSNI, which owns one of the redevelopment parcels. Remarkably, the City has publicly adopted the principle of development without displacement, typically demanded by communities facing gentrification and displacement.
The process is being led by a partnership between City staff and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. DSNI is the community organizing and planning group famous for winning the power of eminent domain in the 1980s and starting a community land trust (CLT) that now owns over 30 acres.
Upham’s Corner was named in Boston’s 2017 master plan (Imagine Boston 2030) as one of three pilot neighborhoods that could serve as models for future development practices across the city. Not only is the process being co-facilitated by City and DSNI, but involves five City departments and a diverse range of community organizations and businesses. This complexity raises questions of both feasibility (“will developers bid on a project that meets the needs of the community?”) and replicability (“if this works here, how can it work elsewhere?”).
What this process suggests so far is that the interests of planners, residents, municipalities, and developers need not be at odds. With a process that builds in deliberation, engagement, and respect for different forms of expertise, a community vision can be created and pursued collectively.
Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) 2
The deep level of community participation and collaborative planning in Uphams Corner would not be happening without the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. DSNI is nationally renowned for establishing community control over development starting in the 1980s. It formed a community land trust in 1988 to take ownership of and redevelop vacant land.3
DSNI was organized to reclaim the Dudley neighborhood from a legacy of urban renewal and disinvestment. Among the most visible effects of this disinvestment were the 1,300 vacant lots, near-nightly insurance fires, and illegal dumping of waste. In 1984, the Dudley Advisory Group was formed, and in 1985, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative was established, a board was created, and community meetings were held. Since its founding, resident control has been at the heart of DSNI’s work and vision.
Since its early days, DSNI’s membership (now over 3,600) has always been planning for the design and development of their community, and has engaged in direct action, projects, and programs to this end. In 1986, the year DSNI became staffed, the Don’t Dump on Us! campaign to end illegal dumping was initiated (and concluded a year later in victory). In 1987, The Dudley Street Neighborhood Revitalization Plan was created by the community and then adopted by the City. The Dudley Triangle Build-Out Plan was made in 1989 and updated in a 1996 Community Urban Visioning Process. In 1991 the Nubian Youth Committee began, and the first youth (John Barros) was elected to the DSNI board of directors.
Instrumental to DSNI’s power as a community planning and organizing entity is its control of a significant amount of land in the Dudley Triangle, which is just west of Upham’s Corner. By 2014, more than 40 city-owned parcels were transferred to DNI’s ownership, and to date, the land trust owns the land upon which there are 226 permanently affordable homes, 3 open space parcels, 3 commercial parcels, and 2 urban farms and community greenhouse. Thanks to DSNI and other non-profit developers in the neighborhood, over 400 new homes were built and over 500 units rehabilitated on the CLT’s land between 1985 and 2012. Over half of the 1,300 lots that were vacant at the inception of DSNI have now been “rehabilitated for homes, gardens, parks, orchard, playgrounds, schools, community centers and a Town Common.”4
The DSNI-City Partnership
The City of Boston and DSNI are both taking a risk by engaging in this partnership. This process requires City staff time and invites perhaps more uncertainty if there are irresolvable conflicts between City and community. For DSNI, partnering with the City could damage its reputation and cost it the trust of residents.
DSNI has had the attention of the City since its earliest days, and, as a non-profit developer and land owner, has a long history of negotiating with the City. In 2014, John Barros, DSNI’s then Executive Director of thirteen years was appointed by Mayor Walsh as Chief of Economic Development for the City of Boston. Chief Barros has played a lynchpin role in this process, linking together City and community. As a City insider who reports directly to the Mayor, Chief Barros has been able to pilot new processes, drawing on his experiences at DSNI.
Chief Barros’ long-standing relationship to the neighborhood and how that affects his particular role at the City is important, because the Office of Economic Development (OED) has been playing a greater role in facilitating this process than in other development processes. The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), Boston’s quasi-public planning and redevelopment agency, is typically the driver of economic development in other cases, while the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) often leads affordable housing development processes. BPDA (formerly named the Boston Redevelopment Authority) has had a long history of difficult and antagonistic relationships with communities through the urban renewal period, which are still impacting current debates over development and gentrification. The Upham’s Corner Implementation process is an opportunity for the City to build trust and collaboration with communities.
An Arts and Innovation Vision for Upham’s Corner
In the last 15 years, Upham’s Corner has been the subject of multiple City-led plans and studies, from a new vision for the Strand Theater (2004) to a walk to work study (2011) to the city-wide master plan Imagine Boston 2030 (2017). The Upham’s Corner Station Area Plan (2014) found that residents envisioned Upham’s as a “revitalized commercial, cultural and community center that is a celebration of diversity and an arts and cultural anchor of the Fairmount Indigo Corridor,” which refers to the commuter rail line running through the district. The Fairmount Indigo Corridor Plan (2014) envisions Upham’s as “a strong, mixed-used center and Corridor-wide arts and culture destination.” The Dudley Square-Upham’s Corner Corridor Neighborhood Innovation District Plan (2015), which focuses on technological and creative entrepreneurship, calls for an inclusive process that is controlled by the community, and for a concurrent housing plan to address the displacement that could result from enhancing the innovation economy.
This recognition of Upham’s Corner as a cultural hub was elevated and reinforced by the many grassroots arts activations in the neighborhood carried out by organizations like DSNI and Design Studio for Social Innovation (ds4si). The most significant among these was the Fairmount Cultural Corridor creative placemaking initiative (2012-2014).
Out of this extensive work, a vision emerged: Upham’s would be walkable and include a green corridor; it would have affordable housing and affordable commercial space; it would be an arts and innovation district that serves as a cultural anchor for the surrounding neighborhoods; it would be a neighborhood envisioned, built, and enjoyed by the people living in it now.5
Combining Redevelopment Sites
The redevelopment of Upham’s Corner into an Arts and Innovation District depends on the collaborative use of at least four separate sites, each of which will serve a different function, but together are intended to achieve the whole vision. Rather than running completely separate development processes for each site, RFPs will be packaged together, giving developers the opportunity to bid on all or just select parcels.
The City owns the Strand Theater, the former Bank of America building, intended for a Library parcel and which may include housing above the library use, and a municipal parking lot. DSNI’s land trust DNI owns the former Citizen’s Bank building (DNICB), acquired in 2017 with a loan from the Department of Neighborhood Development. Now known as the Dudley Neighbors Inc Community Building (DNICB), this site envisions mixed commercial and affordable housing uses. DSNI/DNI retain control over their own decision-making process for this parcel, but the property is packaged with the other City-owned sites so that developers have the option to bid on multiple sites.
At least two other privately-owned parcels on both sides of the former Bank of America building may also factor into the redevelopment. They include a building owned by the Upham’s Corner Health Center and one owned and used by Santander Bank. Inclusion of these sites will further expand opportunities for developers to meet the ambitious community redevelopment vision. The City is in discussions to potentially acquire both of these sites and relocate the Library to the Santander site.
The Implementation Process
The Implementation Process began in Fall of 2017 and will conclude with the release of the RFPs and selection of the developers in later 2020. The work so far has been to turn the ambitious community vision into a well-articulated plan and set of criteria for assessing and choosing developers. After the RFP closes, developers’ proposals will be reviewed and developer(s) chosen. After that, the City’s Article 80 review process will ensue, leading to ground breaking hopefully by the fall of 2022.
The Implementation Process has been co-facilitated by the City and DSNI. It is guided by a Working Advisory Group (WAG), with members appointed by the Mayor and representing various community stakeholders. The WAG has been the primary governing body, making decisions steering the process (such as when to hold broader community meetings) and coming to consensus on the language in the RFP documents. While the WAG has been meeting approximately monthly, there have also been a series of larger community meetings to gather input on all the various aspects of the vision and report back on how community input is shaping the development vision. Through these cycles of input, deliberation, and feedback, the Implementation Process maintains fidelity to community control, while working towards feasibility. As the community proposes ideas or raises questions and concerns in community meetings, the WAG can go into further depth, drawing on the collective knowledge and expertise across the stakeholders and various City agencies. For example, questions about non-visual artists benefiting from the artists’ housing to be built can be addressed by the Arts and Culture staff, who have been part of the City’s policy process of defining artists.
Several major themes have emerged in the process. Housing affordability is a major concern and seen as a way to keep residents and artists in the neighborhood. A broad and diverse definition of arts and culture is driving the vision. Artists are not only painters, but also performers and musicians. Innovation is not only about technology companies, but defined as supporting creativity and entrepreneurial ideas of current residents. Finding a feasible model for operating the Strand is a major concern. Finally, there remain many questions around how to support affordable commercial spaces.
The WAG is comprised of a dozen Mayoral appointees. The origins of this group date back to 2012 when then-Mayor Thomas Menino appointed a 24-person advisory group of business owners, non-profit staff, and community residents to work with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (renamed the BPDA in 2016) to consider the redevelopment of the Fairmount corridor, which refers to the neighborhoods serviced by a newly-reinstated commuter rail line. The WAG was meant to be a group of people closely connected to the local community that would play an advisory role: both to “guide the process” and to “create a bridge with local communities.”6
In the fall of 2017, a new WAG convened, with two members from the initial group carrying on. This WAG has been charged with creating the RFPs to guide developers in using the available development parcels to implement the community vision. WAG members are meant to represent the community groups they come from, including neighborhood associations and non-profits like Upham’s Corner Main Street and the Upham’s Corner Health Center. City staffers attend WAG meetings, and Office of Economic Development and BPDA staff, partnering with DSNI, have set agendas and facilitated meetings. Represented city agencies have included the BPDA, Office of Economic Development, Department of Neighborhood Development, Office of Arts and Culture, and Boston Public Library. The meetings are open to the public, but developers who attend meetings are not able to bid, as this would become a conflict of interest. While meetings are technically open, they tend to include only the aforementioned people with occasional attendance by other interested parties.
Community meetings are a central feature of the Implementation Process. They are the main mechanism for communication between residents and their representative WAG members, and between residents and the City. While retaining that function throughout, the content of community meetings has changed over the course of the Implementation Process.
The Implementation kicked off with an October 2017 community meeting to orient the community both to the previous planning processes and to the next phase of work. The following two meetings, both held in November of 2017, focused on uses for the parcels central to the redevelopment: the Strand Theater and the Library. In January 2018, a community meeting held at the Cape Verdean Adult Day Center was called “What we Heard, What we Learned.” It was a feedback session that built on the previous two meetings, in which the WAG presented scenarios for the Strand and for the Library, and asked for the community’s response to those scenarios.
In April 2018, the workshop (“Elements of an Arts and Innovation District”) focused on potential uses for the parcels apart from library and theater uses. The May 2018 workshop (“What Development Could Look Like”) focused on the RFP process and more discussion on housing and ideas about how to define an “Arts and Innovation District” in the Upham’s context. In the June 2018 meeting, residents were presented with a draft of a portion of the RFP relating to the Strand Theater, the Library, and affordable housing.
After a summer hiatus, the WAG reconvened in fall 2018, and held a community meeting in November (“Putting Our Plans into Action!”) to review drafts of three separate RFPs that would be released jointly under one cover. This meeting was held at DNICB, one of the parcels to be redeveloped. At this meeting, residents self-selected into groups that were focused on certain aspects of the draft RFP, including housing, commercial space, and the Strand. The community came together again at the celebration of the work so far towards the RFP on March 20, 2019.
Between WAG meetings and community meetings, DSNI staff meet with City staff to determine next steps in the process and to organize the logistics. The partners decides WAG meeting agendas and determines the purpose of community meetings. DSNI staff have been leading the community engagement for the process. City staff have been facilitating the WAG meetings and refining the RFP language to reflect community response.
July 2019 Updates
- In spring 2019, there were delays within the City to finalize and release the RFPs due to legal challenges related to the discussions around acquiring the Santander and Upham’s Corner Health Center sites. Under law, the City cannot be seen as giving preferential treatment to certain private owners over another in public redevelopment. To overcome this challenge, the City released a Request for Information (RFI) on July 22 to solicit potential partnerships from any property owners interested in being part of the redevelopment. An additional opportunity offered by this RFI is to solicit information to aid in the search for a suitable operator for the Strand Theatre, which has been a major concern. The RFI closed August 22, 2019.
- Several WAG members, particularly business owners have not been participating regularly and several have left the WAG. The WAG intends to appoint several new members to fill open seats and to ensure better representation of the arts community.
September 2020 Updates
- Delays continued from Fall 2019 into Spring 2020, as the City continued to pursue acquisition of the Santander and Upham’s Corner Health Center sites. Then the covid-19 pandemic forced another delay. As of September 2020, plans are being developed to release the RFP as soon as November 2020. The plan is for 3 distinct RFPs. The City will release RFPs for the main set of City-owned sites (including Strand and former Bank of America) and one for the City’s municipal parking lot. DNI will release its own RFP for the DNI Community Building in coordination with the City.
- The WAG has not met since the covid-19 pandemic began, but intends to resume meetings remotely this fall. The City still plans to recruit new members to the WAG.
December 2020 Updates
- DSNI plans to release a Request for Proposal (RFP) on Monday, December 14th for the DNI Community Building (DNICB). For more details about DNI’s process and how you can get involved, see the DNI Redevelopment Process page.
- The City of Boston plans to release RFPS this winter for the main set of City-owned sites (including the Strand and former Bank of America) and one for the City’s municipal parking lot.
1 This briefing was compiled by a team of researchers from Tufts University (Penn Loh, Minnie McMahon, and Luisa Santos). We have partnered with DSNI to study the Upham’s Corner Implementation Process for what it can teach us about the practice of community control and the ways community participation is affecting development and the participants themselves.
2 DSNI Historic Timeline
3 DSNI’s land trust is a subsidiary nonprofit named Dudley Neighbors, Inc (DNI). A community land trust is a community-controlled organization that stewards land for long-term public benefit as part of the commons. CLTs keep the land in trust—the land is never resold. Therefore, CLT land is removed from the speculative market. In this way, CLTs protect land from the pressures of the real estate market and keep the improvements on the land—such as housing or commercial space—affordable.
4 DSNI Historic Timeline
5 John Barros comments October 4, 2017