Property developers are eyeing some major facelifts nestled between some of Allston’s major corridors.
Cambridge Street, particularly at its intersection with Harvard Avenue, has remained one of the neighborhood’s well-trafficked commercial and industrial districts — home to auto body shops, suppliers, and wholesalers — on a swath of land just south of the Mass. Pike.
But as Boston’s famously college student-oriented community continues to evolve after the completion of the nearby Boston Landing complex and as Harvard University expands into Allston, some developers see a chance for new life on the busy strip.
“It was always a major stretch of town, especially so close to the highway and all the schools and everything, but the fact that it was warehouses and (an) industrial area for so long always seemed a little out of place with the rest of the neighborhood,” Clifford Kensington, director of acquisitions for Brookline-based City Real Estate Development Corp., said in a recent interview.
The firm is looking to change that, with its proposed “Allston Square” development — a sizable 92,945-square-foot project spread across six buildings on and around Cambridge Street.
Plans show developers are poised to bring in 334 residential units and over 22,000 square feet of office space, if the Boston Planning and Development Agency gives everything the green light.
In total, the plans either seek to revamp or replace buildings at 334 and 415 Cambridge St., 16 Highgate St., and 2-8 Harvard Ave. Filings with the city also show the firm is interested in preserving the historic Allston Hall on Franklin Street, while knocking down and starting anew on a site on Franklin and Braintree streets.
And up Cambridge Street, Partners Properties, the longtime owner of a nearby commercial property at 20 Linden St., is looking to transform its 79,000-square-foot site into a three-building residential complex.
While preliminary plans are not officially on the books yet, the project would be a mix of apartments and condominiums with an approximate total of 350 units, according to Johanna Schneider, an attorney representing the firm.
“I do think it is pretty exciting,” she said. “It is a part of Allston that has not seen the same level of investment and development as other parts have.”
The rise of residential real estate, while certainly not isolated to Allston, represents a visible shift in one of the neighborhood’s nonresidential sections.
The area, just next to the MBTA’s Framingham-Worcester commuter rail line, has been a predominantly commercial hub for most of its history, with many of the buildings surrounding the Cambridge Street and Harvard Avenue intersection dating back to the 1880s and 1890s, according to the Brighton Allston Historical Society.
The nearby train station depot — now home to a Regina Pizzeria — brought travelers into the community from Worcester and Albany at the turn of the 20th century.
But the neighborhood has received an injection of new interest beyond its popularity among some of Boston’s youngest residents, with Harvard University growing the school’s Allston campus and planned changes to the Mass. Pike in coming years expected to create new development opportunities.
Several more residential development projects are in different stages of the approval process before the BPDA in a half-mile stretch between Allston’s Cambridge and Everett streets.
Notably, at 60 Everett St. — just east of the Boston Landing development — Stop and Shop is eyeing a substantial upgrade to its current shopping center. Plans on file with the city show the company is proposing a four-building complex, complete with retail, restaurant, and office space and up to 1,050 housing units.
“That whole corridor I think in the next five to 10 years is going to be unrecognizable as it is today,” said City Councilor Mark Ciommo, noting the recently-built Trac 75 — a luxury apartment building on Braintree Street adjacent to the Mass. Pike — was the “first investment in that area in ages.”
“Allston Square” was first brought before the city with a Letter of Intent in February, and developers still have a ways to go before anything takes flight.
City Realty has looked toward the sites for some time, even before the Boston Landing development seemingly sparked a catalyst for change and interest in remodeling Allston-Brighton, Kensington said.
“Now that that’s all happening at the same time, it’s really turned that into kind of a perfect storm of positive developments,” he said.
The Cambridge Street and Harvard Avenue intersection, despite its location as somewhat of a gateway to Allston from Cambridge, and to Boston from points west on the highway, has been “strangely a little underutilized,” Kensington said.
But with projects in the pipeline, Ciommo thinks developers now see the potential the area has as a reliable transit corridor, and pointed to strong commuter rail ridership at the new Boston Landing station.
“I think a major reason people are coming here as they are is that it has become a more desirable area,” he said. “I think the commuter rail has helped — that and we are just close in proximity to the city.”
And there’s a lot to like, according to state Rep. Kevin Honan, who says Allston has been “discovered.”
“Our neighborhood is vibrant, very desirable,” he said in an interview. “A lot of employment opportunities around the area, a lot of restaurants and recreational opportunities. There’s a nightlife around there, so it’s definitely appealing to millennials and other young folks.”
Aside from the busy Cambridge Street intersection, Linden Street, where Partners Properties is considering its project, serves as a well-traveled link between Brighton Avenue and Cambridge Street. During rush hour commutes, a long line of vehicles often stretches down the residential street.
Public transit, either on the Green Line’s B Branch or on the number of bus lines that crisscross the area, is already swamped with ridership.
Traffic spurred by new development — and how it will be managed — is a chief concern for residents.
“We can’t have our streets be completely congested with cars and nowhere to park,” said Anabela Gomes, zoning chairwoman of the Brighton Allston Improvement Association.
It’s for those reasons Gomes would like to see incoming developers consider investing in a neighborhood shuttle bus — a separate line that could ferry residents to major points of interest, like the hospital, Cleveland Circle, or Boston Landing.
“That would really help people to not have to drive to work, not have to drive to where the train is,” Gomes said.
For “Allston Square,” developers envision many of its future residents taking public transit to work or working nearby, so a car isn’t needed, although some 237 parking spaces are part of the plan, Kensington said.
“I think what will help a little bit is that by creating more housing opportunities so close to where so many commercial development zones are, it’ll make sure that the people who are working there aren’t always driving from out of the neighborhood because they had nowhere else to live,” he said. “But if they can live within walking distance, it might offset some of those traffic changes. So we are very much building for people who are walking or biking or taking the train on a day-to-day basis, and even those who do have cars are using them on the weekends and much less often than your day-to-day car commuter.”
The BPDA is starting a mobility study for the Allston-Brighton area amid the hotbed of activity, with a focus on how exactly transit systems and networks can be improved to lessen the traffic blow dealt by new development.
The study “will fully assess existing conditions while analyzing the impacts of pending and approved (but not yet built) development in Allston-Brighton in order to identify strategies to improve the transportation network—streets, bike infrastructure, sidewalks, transit, parking—and mitigate the impacts of development,” the BPDA website states.
City officials intend to have a final draft by the end of next year.
“I’m really encouraged that hopefully that kind of focus will help us deal with those issues,” Ciommo said.
Kensington, beyond the facelift, sees City Realty’s project as a means to fulfill a specific demand in the local market.
While the number of residential developments across Boston has surged amid a building boom, opportunities for home ownership in Allston, where rentals reign over the market, have remained scarce, some say.
There’s a pent-up demand that has remained unfulfilled, Kensington said.
“The joke used to always be if you lived in Boston in your 20s, at some point you had to at least have one lease in Allston-Brighton. …. But we were always a believer that the reason it stayed so young was because as people got older, there [wasn’t] really anywhere for people to go if you did want to buy a condo or you did want to go up to the next stage, there really was just nothing being built for those people,” he said. “So they had no choice but to go to different neighborhoods when they were ready to make the next step in their housing lifecycle.”
According to the Brighton Allston Community Coalition, formed earlier this year, Allston’s owner-occupancy rate is 10 percent — notably less than the city average of 34 percent.
Gomes agrees the ownership potential is definitely a benefit of new development.
Residents hope the added units could work to stabilize the market and lower prices for the area’s other, aging housing stock, she said.
Making use of long-vacant industrial sites is another plus.
“It is nice to actually clean up the area and have people walking on the streets rather than empty buildings,” Gomes said.
Ciommo, who watches the city’s assessing data closely, said there’s a few ways to look at it all.
“We need supply to help that demand,” he said. “We need to hold developers accountable to produce more housing options and … we’re seeing more (homeownership opportunities) more recently than maybe the previous four or five years.
“But I would also like to add that people need to remember that, you know, less than 10 years ago, less than six years ago, we were seeing declining values for seven years because of the Great Recession,” he added.
Now, with the economy strong, Ciommo said he’s seen new condominiums sold within months after hitting the market. He sees positive change in the area.
“Clearly, there is still a demand,” he said.