New England Casket Co. built caskets for some of the world’s rich and famous — celebrities like Muhammad Ali, Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Walter Cronkite, Joan Rivers, Leona Helmsley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tip O’Neill, owner Louis Tobia Jr. told the Globe in 2017.
And then it burned down in a nine-alarm fire in 2019.
Today, all that remains of the former birthplace of the $25,000 mahogany Concord casket are patches of gravel and a few remnants of the factory’s walls and foundation, according to the Project Notification Form submitted to the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
Perhaps not for much longer, however. The Tobia family is partnering with real estate advisory and investment firm Redgate to build on the 1.86-acre plot, creating a transit-focused residential development that will include retail and public open space. Here’s what we know about the development so far:
New England Casket Co., which Fred Tobia founded 77 years ago, made its home on Bennington Street after World War II. After the fire, the family decided not to rebuild. “My intention was to rebuild there,” Louis Tobia said in a phone interview, “but I quickly found out it was going to take too long to rebuild there.”
Tobia considered moving the company to another city, looking at buildings in Lawrence and Amesbury, but ultimately decided not to bite.
“The heart of my business was my employees, who all came from Boston and Chelsea and Everett and those surrounding areas, and it was going to be not very efficient to get them up there,” he said. “So I finally made a decision that we were not going to reopen.
Tobia said he is renting the space out as a storage and staging area for a construction company doing water and sewer work in the neighborhood. Aside from that, the property is almost completely vacant, save for a few remnants of the former building, which the developers plan to demolish.
The 1.87-acre site is made up of three parcels, bordered by the MBTA’s Blue Line to the north and its Orient Heights yard to the west. It also sits on the edge of Belle Isle Marsh. The proposed project includes a walkway allowing public access to the marsh.
The site sits within the Saratoga Street Economic Development Area of East Boston, and is within the East Boston Interim Planning Overlay District, a critical region in the city’s PLAN: East Boston program.
The development will be approximately 250,664 gross square feet, with two six-story residential buildings holding a total of 221 housing units. At least 29 will be affordable housing, in accordance with the city’s Inclusionary Development Program, said Damien Szary, a founding principal at Redgate. The site will also include 121 parking spaces and 1,144 gross square feet of retail space.
The plan to add retail space came in response to community feedback, Tobia said. “So we’re going to put a little retail space, maybe a cafe or shop, that the general public in the area can use to take advantage of maybe the marsh views.”
In addition to the residential and retail pieces, 38 percent of the site will be public open space, overlooking Belle Marsh. The proposal includes a wrap-around terrace on the ground floor, “providing opportunities for public outdoor seating and gathering while enjoying amazing views of Belle Isle Marsh and its diverse plant and wildlife,” according to the proposal.
The project will also involve updating 33,000 square feet off-site on Austin Avenue and Bennington and Palermo streets, adding crosswalks, curb cuts, and a new bike path along the eastern edge of Austin Avenue, according to the proposal.
“The planning process that the city is going through right now is looking to make some transportation-related improvements,” Szary said, noting that some of those improvements will be made to Palermo Street and Austin Avenue. As part of the work at 1141 Bennington St., the developers will also do some “road reorientation work,” that will allow for “the introduction of more open space,” Szary said.
Headquartered in Boston’s Financial District, Redgate Holdings LLC provides both real estate advisory and investment management services. The company has worked on developments in and around the region, including a waterfront apartment complex in Revere and a mixed-used lab and performing arts center in Kendall Square in Cambridge. In total, they have developed roughly 2,000 housing units in the area, with a special focus along the Blue line, Szary said.
Tobia said he spoke with developers from all over the place, worrying that bigger, non-local firms would want only the land, leaving him with no say in what happened on the spot where generations of his family have worked.
“Redgate was local. They’ve done business projects up in Chelsea and East Boston, and they allowed me to be part of this. Instead of just coming in and purchasing the land, we decided to become partners,” he said. “So I’m going to be part of this as one of the owners throughout the whole thing, and that’s what made a difference to me. I have a lot of say in what goes on here, and I want to make sure it fits in the community.”
Szary expressed a similar sentiment about working with Tobia.
“The fact that we’re teaming up with a third-generation East Boston family to hopefully create a bright side from a tragic loss I think is obviously something that is worthwhile,” Szary said.
The city is seeking public feedback on the project.