Columns » South End Character

Hanging on by fingernails

by Alison Barnet
Thursday Sep 25, 2014

I stood there, stunned. Why was the door locked? Finally, I noticed a small sign: "After 30 years in Boston's South End," Zapatos, my favorite shoe store, was moving to Everett. That was February 2012. Now 90 Wareham Street, corner of Albany Street, is condo, and two developers, including Cresset, the Zapatos developer, are poised to develop more high-end residential on Wareham Street.

Cresset Development already has approval to develop the parking lot behind the Zapatos building into 27 residential units, with retail on the first floor, and underground parking. Holland Development plans to add two stories to the former Samos Imex building at 46 Wareham Street. On the first floor would be a new space for Newbury Street's Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, with 42 "live/work" units above and underground parking. The City's decision is pending.

"Anxiety is rising" reads one of the many emails and letters that businesses and artists have sent to City officials, the Zoning Board, and other agencies opposing the change in zoning from light industrial to residential. It doesn't help that the owner of another building of artists' studios on Wareham Street recently died or that "a mysterious bidder" has offered $35 million for the adjacent Flower Exchange.

A few years ago, after Mayor Menino found the area "poised for growth," the City developed a "strategic" plan for Harrison and Albany. Four study areas were identified: New York Streets, SoWa, medical, and Wareham, Plympton, Malden, and Albany-dubbed Back Streets. It makes it sound like an alley, observes artist Lisa Houck.

Zoned for light industry, "Back Streets" has been a thriving area, with hundreds of artists and countless small businesses, including a caterer, florist, architects, designers, a commercial photographer, interior designers, a European wall upholsterer, publishing company, printer, film maker, and sign company-many quite successful, some famous.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Here's an area that works for artists and businesses, a productive, interesting place.

"In this city, mixed use units have routinely become luxury residential housing," wrote artist Jo Ann Rothschild in July. "This is the story of the leather district, Fort Point Channel, and many individual buildings. What were once artists' work spaces, become luxury lofts." "We're now feeling quite threatened and are worried that this tiny area will go the way of so many other larger, established artists and small businesses," wrote artist Susan Belton. "We're hanging on by our fingernails."

The owners of Boston Sign Company on Plympton wrote, "If you guys decide to make Back Streets a residential neighborhood it will force us out of the City. Our light industrial use is not compatible with residents...we make signs here." Above and Beyond Catering, also on Plympton, commented that if this little enclave goes, there's nowhere left.

Live/work is a trendy concept but doesn't work, according to Belton. "They call it live/work but it's too much money for an artist to live and work in those spaces. Artists need a dirty space to work in, one they wouldn't want to live in, and they need to live around other artists." Rothschild agrees: "Artists thrive in community. We like to talk to other artists about what we do. We like to see what other artists are making."

In her July email, Rothschild pointed out: "Most artists prefer having a place to work that is separate from our home. We use materials that must be managed to maintain safety. These can be toxic and unwieldy. Those of us who work large, require space. We need deliveries of materials and the export of product. We require loading docks that are accessible 24/7 and the absence of vulnerable pedestrians who may be unaware of the dangers of backing trucks."

Bonnie Gossells, owner of the large former mill building at 535 Albany, is concerned with lack of representation. A strong opponent of the change to residential, her remarks have been cut short at hearings.

Although some of the businesses at 535 Albany Street say they could benefit from more shoppers, so far, the redeveloped Zapatos building hasn't brought them in. With Cresset's new buildings, some will lose light and their view of downtown. They're also concerned about parking.

"The flood of money, much of it from outside the city, outside the commonwealth, or outside the country seeks to make Boston a monoculture of luxury housing and investment, with no place for small businesses or artists," Rothschild wrote to the authorities. "I urge you to reject this change in zoning and encourage Holland Development LLC to use their building to increase the availability of commercial space in the city, rather than to threaten it. They could develop the building profitably for commercial tenants. This would be a higher use."

Alison Barnet is the author of South End Character, Speaking Out on Neighborhood Change. You can buy her book at Foodie's and at the South End Branch Library-$10.

Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.


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