By Greg Galer
Boston is experiencing tremendous real estate development at unmatched levels. Consequently, developers and preservationists alike have creatively undertaken the rehabilitation of particularly challenging, long-vacant, or underutilized historic structures and spaces — sites previously passed over when economics and demand didn’t support attention. As a result, we’re welcoming several historic Boston preservation projects that aren’t your average home restoration, two of which have been spearheaded by our sister organization, Historic Boston, Inc.
The Roslindale Substation is a prime example of the creative preservation of a building with long-ignored potential. When constructed in 1911, the substation was part of an electrical network powering the Boston Elevated Railway Company, cutting-edge technology at the time and precursor to today’s MBTA. The industrial, open floorplan once held large generators but sat vacant since the 1970s until it was acquired in 2012, along with the adjacent lot, by Historic Boston, Inc. and Roslindale Village Main Street.
Four years later, the substation has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and is now mid-rehabilitation, giant doors and all — it’s on track to house a restaurant and craft beer store. Adjacent new construction brought 43 apartments to the neighborhood at the end of 2015 and made the financing viable.
Another example is Quaker Lane, an L-shaped throughway and pivotal component of the highly anticipated Congress Square development downtown. Years ago, Quaker Lane was a vibrant place, but for generations it’s been an ugly service alley behind five historic buildings between Water, Congress and Devonshire streets — the backside of offices with no public engagement. The new owner of the buildings, Related-Beal, envisions a dramatic change to this pending landmark. Quaker Lane will be transformed into an inviting venue amid the unique character of the historic buildings; dining, outdoor seating, festive lighting, and much of the lane closed to vehicles will be surrounded by active residential, commercial, and retail spaces. Quaker Lane will be a destination — a change that we and the Boston Landmarks Commission have welcomed throughout our dialogue with the project team.
Look no further than Upham’s Corner Comfort Station for yet another instance of a formerly blighted building now on its way to becoming a community asset. This one-story Mission style public restroom was built in 1912 but has been vacant for nearly 40 years. Historic Boston, Inc., in partnership with the American City Corporation and the Bowdoin Bike School, will transform the building into a mission-driven retail business and community space; upon completion, it will be home to the Sip & Spoke Bike Kitchen, a full-service bicycle shop and café. After years of neglect, this is a fantastic investment that will have a substantial positive impact within the Dorchester neighborhood’s business district. Another similar conversion is the Earl of Sandwich, a dilapidated historic public restroom turned sandwich shop on the Boston Common. We were so impressed with the structure’s rehabilitation that the Alliance chose the project as one of our 2013 Preservation Achievement Award winners.
Bostonians are eager for the transformation of derelict spaces — the excitement and passion surrounding each of these projects has been evident among those managing the restorations and onlookers alike. Yet successfully rehabilitating any historic building requires ingenuity and dedication; those challenges are emphasized in historic structures left vacant for years or perceived as oddities.
The payoff for such undertakings can be immense. These transformations often energize entire neighborhoods, and federal and state Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit programs positively impact the local region. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, roughly 75% of the Federal Historic Tax Credit’s economic effects are retained in the localities and states where the projects are located. These projects demonstrate that the benefits of historic preservation go well beyond beautifying buildings. The rehabilitation of long-forgotten corners of Boston has the potential to improve the quality of life and economic vitality throughout the city. Here’s looking forward to the next “funky” preservation project.
Greg Galer is executive director at Boston Preservation Alliance.