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(Bruce Hampton of Elton Hampton Architects)

Recognizing that meaningful transformation of an economically distressed urban neighborhood requires more than just the renovation or replacement of subpar housing stock, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2011 launched the Choice Neighborhoods initiative. The program takes a more comprehensive approach to addressing some of the core issues of poverty and incorporates educational and safety programs and commercial activity into a wide-ranging neighborhood revitalization strategy.

In July, a development in Boston became the first of the five initial Choice Neighborhoods projects to be completed when HUD Secretary Julián Castro cut the ribbon on Quincy Heights, a 129-unit scattered-site housing redevelopment in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the Quincy Corridor in Dorchester.

“The key innovation of Choice is really to go beyond housing. You’re also focused on entrepreneurialism and education,” Castro told reporters after the ceremony. “It is a blueprint that a lot of cities can benefit from—show other communities how they can do what Boston has done.” The $20.5 million Choice Neighborhoods grant unlocked an additional $83.2 million in public and private funding to help revitalize the former Woodledge/Morrant Bay housing development and the surrounding neighborhood.

The centerpiece of the redevelopment is a nonprofit shared-use commercial kitchen and food business incubator that is adding jobs as well as a vibrancy to the resurgent neighborhood. In addition to constructing the new and renovated housing units, Boston and its development partner, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (DBEDC), gutted and renovated the former Pearl Meats factory, creating the Bornstein & Pearl food production center with the hope of injecting economic life into the neighborhood. The 36,000-square-foot (3,300 sq m) building had been vacant and fallen into disrepair since its former owner relocated to the suburbs in 2006. Now the structure, which had been emblematic of neighborhood blight, is a shining example of the power of transformative redevelopment.

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Mayor Martin Walsh and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro at the Quincy Heights ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Isabel Leon/Office of the Mayor)

“The housing stock was older and in need of renovation, and the Pearl Meat facility had been shuttered for a very long period of time, so the entire neighborhood was in need of revitalization. It was not a street where people would want to live or to raise families, but now all of that has changed,” said Sheila Dillon, chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development for Boston. Dillon had been housing adviser to former Boston mayor Thomas Menino while the neighborhood plan was being devised.

“Community residents in most of Boston neighborhoods, when you go out and talk about housing, want more comprehensive planning and development schemes,” she said. “We have a housing shortage and we need more affordable housing, but we also need jobs and opportunities for small business. So it’s wonderful when one development can accomplish both.”

The $14.5 million food production center was funded through various federal, state, Boston, private lending, and foundation grant sources, plus a $500,000 Choice Neighborhoods Critical Community Improvement grant. The facility was completed in March 2014, well ahead of the housing, and has been a resounding success. In its first year of operation (through March 15 of this year), the facility created 84 jobs, with 49 of those positions held by residents of Dorchester or the abutting neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan, according to Andy Waxman, director of real estate for the DBEDC.

“Not only was it the permanent jobs at the Pearl facility, but we really had a strong focus on local and minority construction hiring both for workers and for subcontractors [constructing both housing and the food center], and that was a big part of what made the project successful,” said Waxman.

The building is currently more than 80 percent occupied, and another tenant has signed a letter of intent for another 10 percent of the building, boosting that figure to over 90 percent, he said. Lenders required that an 80 percent occupancy rate to be attained in the first two years, but the goal was achieved within the first year of operation.

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From right to left: Jen Faigel, executive director at Commonwealth Kitchen, Mayor Walsh, and Secretary Castro meet with a food truck entrepreneur who is using the food production facility. (Isabel Leon/Office of the Mayor)

Commonwealth Kitchen (CWK), DBEDC’s partner and on-site property manager, occupies 43 percent of the building and runs a multifunctional shared commercial kitchen that also offers business training for food business startups. Private kitchen space is available for $35 per hour to startup or early-stage food businesses such as food trucks and purveyors of cookies, salsa, or juices, with the balance of the building leased to a mix of small and growing food businesses such as Alex’s Ugly Sauce and 88 Acres, which creates and sells allergen-free snacks.

“Right now in my kitchen, there are 50 businesses, and those businesses are going to grow and they’re going to need to go someplace else,” says Jen Faigel, executive director at CWK, who has seen three or four businesses per year “graduate” from CWK’s other incubator facility in nearby Jamaica Plain. “We’re a part of the early stage of thinking about community development and transformation, and that’s an important part of [HUD’s] development strategy because the jobs and the businesses stay in the neighborhood. As a partner to the housing, bringing true economic development opportunities that create wealth, assets, and real meaningful opportunity to people who are from this neighborhood—that is the real transformation in what we’re doing.”

But the food production center is just one component of the revitalized Quincy Corridor neighborhood. The former Woodledge/Morrant Bay scattered-site housing development is now composed of 129 new or renovated units ranging from one to four bedrooms, all of which carry Section 8 subsidies; 49 of the new apartments are designed to retain the architectural character of the neighborhood. The renovated apartments also underwent a deep energy retrofit that includes high-efficiency windows and boilers, roof and wall insulation, energy-efficient fixtures and appliances, low-flow plumbing fixtures and solar thermal systems for hot water and common areas, and solar panels that were installed on all of the buildings. As part of an energy study program, one building was constructed to achieve net-zero energy use.

Other significant neighborhood improvements included in the redevelopment include enhanced public wi-fi in the neighborhood, new playground and open space at the Haynes Early Learning Center, a new playground and school yard at the Martin Luther King Jr. K−8 School, and assistance for local businesses.

“I think Choice is really doing what we wish we could do more of, which is to say that housing is the cornerstone of redevelopment. But if that’s all you do, you’re really missing an opportunity to really build community,” said Barbara Fields, New England regional director for HUD through April 2014 (though she was not involved in selection of Boston for the Choice Neighborhoods program). “I think Choice was saying, ‘It’s housing, it’s the neighborhoods, it’s the jobs, and the people.’”