Redeveloping for Inclusion in Chelsea

Across the Mystic River from Boston, Chelsea is a low-income Massachusetts community with an industrial past and a diverse population of primarily first- and second-generation immigrants. Chelsea’s recipe for redevelopment included a 10.5-acre (4.2 ha) remediated industrial brownfield, a commuter rail stop, frequent bus service to employment centers in Greater Boston, and the promise of new transit with Boston’s Silver Line extension. The brownfield site, which has been christened the Box District due to its prior use by cardboard-box and mattress manufacturers, is now a revitalized community with more than 400 housing units for people with a mix of incomes and a workforce development and financial services center.

The Box District’s transformation was led by a public/private partnership among local nonprofit developer The Neighborhood Developers (TND), Boston-based for-profit private developer Mitchell Properties, and the city of Chelsea. Envisioned in consultation with the community in 2005, the neighborhood plan, which was carried out in six phases, includes affordable, workforce, and market-rate residences.

The Box District was one of first redevelopments produced under Massachusetts’s Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District Act, known as 40R. The 40R program seeks to encourage communities to revise their zoning codes to allow dense residential and mixed-use infill development and requires that at least 20 percent of housing units be affordable. In return for creating 40R districts, cities and towns receive funding from the state’s Smart Growth Housing Trust Fund. Chelsea invested these funds in infrastructure improvements for the neighborhood. Also due to 40R, three projects in the Box District—Box Works Homes, Atlas Lofts, and Janus Highland Apartments—obtained zoning approvals for higher-density development and reduced parking minimums due to their transit-oriented location.

The project includes three-story apartment buildings, townhouse-style condominiums, and the historic renovation of a former brick-and-beam mill building. From the range of affordability levels to the presence of family-sized apartments, the developers have intentionally set the stage for a diverse community. Long-term affordability is primarily guaranteed through deed restrictions: 48 percent of the units are deed restricted for at least 30 years, and some units have permanent deed restrictions.

TND, which has located its headquarters adjacent to the site, established CONNECT as a one-stop resource for various resident services. CONNECT is run by a collaboration of six nonprofit organizations that pool programming for workforce development and financial capability. CONNECT, which serves approximately 4,000 low-income clients annually, also facilitates small peer-to-peer support networks, called Success Teams, that work together and with a financial coach to establish and achieve life goals.

Success for the Box District has exceeded expectations. According to Ann Houston, executive director of TND, “Early on, we heard concerns that the vision was too bold and too ambitious for Chelsea and for an emerging community development corporation to manage.” Essential to the project’s success was that the partners shared ownership of the vision and responsibility for implementation, she says. “We each brought something to the table—skills, relationships, and financing strategies. We knew that early successes would allow future development to follow; therefore, the partners persisted and stuck together.”

This persistence allowed the partnership to withstand the housing market downturn during the Great Recession and still deliver on a vision of transforming a brownfield site into a diverse and opportunity-rich community. The Box District was a 2014 winner of ULI’s Jack Kemp Excellence in Affordable and Workforce Housing Award.


Image courtesy of The Neighborhood Developers