Friday, March 1, 2013

Historic Neighborhood Centers—The View at Year 5

by Jeffrey Gonyeau, Senior Program Manager

On the one hand, it is hard to believe that it has been 5 years since HBI first launched the Historic NeighborhoodCenters program in Hyde Park and Fields Corner. The time seems to have flown by in a flurry of projects and initiatives that HBI and our many neighborhood partners and friends have undertaken together.

On the other hand, taking a step back to look at specific outcomes and project metrics as HBI has recently done indicates that the program’s efforts have had measurable, positive impacts in the two districts in this relatively short period of time.

In typical form, HBI undertook considerable planning work in developing the Historic Neighborhood Centers program prior to its launch. That said, the program was still somewhat of a theoretical construct even as work got underway in the two districts selected through a city-wide rfp process.

Thankfully, The Boston Foundation stepped forward with generous operating support grants for the program’s first three years that allowed HBI to test the primary hypothesis we put forward through the development of this program:  that the completion of a number of different types of preservation and real estate activities on many levels in a defined geographic area—in this case, a neighborhood commercial district as defined by the Boston Main Streets program—would combine to generate a deeper impact of economic and community revitalization than a one-off rehabilitation project could generate.

As a recently formed Task Force of HBI Board members and community partners convened to analyze the program’s work determined after revisiting the program’s goals and reviewing some of the metrics and outcomes, this hypothesis had real merit.

Metrics and goals can include hard numbers and data as well as less tangible things. For example, between the major rehabilitation projects at the Golden Building and Lenox Building in Fields Corner, and work on the Everett Square Theatre sign and lobby, improvements to several Dana family properties, and the imminent VertulloBuilding rehabilitation project in Hyde Park, the program will have generated a total of $2.8M in improvements, with another $335,000 in the pipeline, for a total of $3.14M in investment physical improvements.

Of this total, HBI’s direct investment will have been $1.7M, with $782,000 coming from other building owners, and $647,000 coming from state tax credits and City of Boston grants. Considering that most Main Streets initiated projects funded in part by ReStore Program grants tend now to focus on signage and lighting upgrades that typically range from $10,000 to $30,000, the total investment in just two districts brought about by the work of the Historic Neighborhood Centers Program represents a significant increase in investment activity.

There are other things that can be counted. Still focusing on building improvements, 10 storefronts or tenant spaces have been improved, and 12 more are planned; from these, 5 sets of highly unattractive roll-down security grates were removed.

In terms of economic improvements and job creation, 3 new business were created in rehabilitated spaces, and 6 more are planned, generating 8 new jobs with 12 more likely on their way. As well, 21 summer jobs for youth were created through a research and digitization project with the Hyde Park Historical Society and two seasons of youth-led walking tours through MyDotTour in Fields Corner.

Through preservation planning tasks, 185 buildings were surveyed, 25 researched in more depth, and 14 studied closely in terms of their historical and architectural significance and feasibility for rehabilitation. This survey work also led to the establishment of 6 new Design Overlay Districts by the BRA.

Finally, Historic Neighborhood Centers made a concerted effort to engage local communities in the history and economic revitalization of their neighborhoods through presentations about neighborhood history and potential rehabilitation projects (17 in the neighborhoods, 5 elsewhere), through the media via HBI blog posts, newsletter pieces, and newspaper articles in the Boston and neighborhood press (90 total, including this post!), not to mention getting people out and about to encourage them to look at their surroundings in new ways through 11 MyDotTour walking tours given to 130 tour-goers in Fields Corner.

Now that the program has a proven track record and recommendations have been developed on how to streamline its methodology and sharpen the approach, HBI is ready to continue advancing its theory in a new district. An outgrowth of the HBI Task Force’s work is to develop a plan and process for adding a new district to the program this year to join Fields Corner and Hyde Park, which will both continue to remain a focus of the program’s attention. Stay tuned here in the coming months to learn more about the programs’ plans for expansion!

On a personal note, the 5-year anniversary of the Historic Neighborhood Centers program marks another significant change, in that I will be leaving HBI after over 12 years here to offer fundraising management on a consulting basis as well as other support to a project that is close to my heart—the restoration of All Saints Church in Dorchester’s Ashmont neighborhood.

My preservation career began in 1998 in Peabody Square practically at the front door of All Saints, where I organized a coalition of neighborhood groups to support the restoration of the Peabody Square Clock—a Boston Landmark. As a founding board member of my own local Main Streets district—St. Mark’s Area Main Streets—this type of work was my introduction to grass-roots preservation, and it is what made the work planning, launching, and implementing the Historic Neighborhood Center program particularly gratifying for me.

So—ending on a high note is always best, and the accomplishments for which HBI and its local partners can take credit through the Historic Neighborhood Centers program’s projects over the last five years represent a high note, indeed!

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