2011: What a Year for Eastie

This year marked a significant period of progress in East Boston from important construction developments to long awaited projects that will enhance the quality of life for residents to the recognition of long standing institutions that Eastie is one of Boston’s more sought after neighborhoods.

The year ended on an up note as Mayor Thomas Menino focused his annual Boston Chamber of Commerce speech on waterfront revitalization in the neighborhood and pledged to make development on Eastie’s shore a reality.

The East Boston Times has compiled the top ten stories that show why Eastie is Boston’s next up and coming neighborhoods.

1. Waterfront Development.

Developers of the waterfront development projects slated for East Boston were beaming with excitement over Mayor Thomas Menino’s speech before the Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Menino pitched his plan to establish an Eastie Waterfront Development District, allowing the City to use various tools to jumpstart development. In the speech the Mayor proposed District Improvement Financing in Eastie that would allow the city to invest up front in infrastructure and recoup the cost later through tax revenue as a way to jumpstart development on the waterfront here.

Developers with projects in the can like Phillip DeNormandie, Arthur Winn and Roseland Properties all said they were excited and really felt Eastie’s time has arrived.

2. Greenway Extension 

There was a lot to celebrate in East Boston in November as community activists joined city and state officials to officially mark the completion of the long anticipated East Boston Greenway Extension design plan.

The 25-foot corridor was a piece of land taken by Massport in the 1960’s as part of Logan Airport’s expansion but Eastie welcomed it back at a ceremony inside the Bremen Street Park this year.

After nearly two years of negotiations, Massport’s board voted in August to approve the community and city’s request to use a small stretch of Massport owned property that use to be part of the famed Wood Island Park in order to connect the Bremen Street Park with a greenway path that will extend to Constitution Beach.

The board’s vote was historic and significant, as it marked the first time land taken in the 1960’s by eminent domain had been given back to Eastie.

Greenway Extension proponents, in return for support for a Bus Depot at Logan, fought for the right to use a 25-foot corridor between the proposed Logan Bus Depot and the community as a way to connect Bremen Street Park to Constitution Beach. This would once and for all connect waterfront parks in the southern part of the neighborhood with parks and airport edge buffers in the northern part of Eastie. This will allow for one continuous park system and allow adults and children to ride their bikes, jog, rollerblade or take part in other leisurely activities without being dependent on busy neighborhood streets like Bennington Street.

3. By-pass Road

Nearly four decades after Marty Coughlin came up with the idea for a bypass road, Massport joined federal, state and local officials to break ground on the $25 million road that will provide limited commercial access between Boston Logan International Airport and Chelsea Street, near the Chelsea Street Bridge.

The new road is expected to improve traffic on residential streets significantly by removing commercial airport traffic from Eastie streets, and improve air quality by reducing vehicle emissions such as volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen.

In honor of Coughlin, an Eastie community organizer who was a long proponent of the idea until his untimely death, Massport named the roadway the Martin A. Coughlin Bypass Road.  Coughlin died in 2000 at the age of 56. Massport estimates the bypass road will reduce bus and truck traffic on Neptune Road by 64 percent and on Chelsea Street by 54 percent.

As Coughlin envisioned, the road will run along an abandoned rail corridor between Frankfort Street and Lovell Street where a traffic light will be placed. The northern end of the bypass, which will run about one-half mile in length, will split with northbound traffic intersecting Chelsea Street via a former rail spur slightly north of Beck Street. Southbound traffic will enter the bypass roadway at Beck Street.

4. Zumix receives National Honor

East Boston’s popular music and performing arts program had a lot to celebrate after the program, its director and one participant were honored during a White House ceremony hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

It was announced this year that Zumix was the winner of the  2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award and the program threw a party at its Sumner Street firehouse facility and watched live as Zumix participant Ixchel Garcia and Executive Director Madeleine Steczynski picked up the award in Washington.

“We are incredibly honored to receive the 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the White House, the highest honor our country has for youth arts programs,” said Steczynski.

Zumix was one of only 12 programs across the country chosen from a pool of more than 471 nominations and 50 finalists for this distinction.

First Lady Obama presented the award to Garcia and Steczynski in the White House’s East Room.

5. Central Square Redevelopment

Based on months of community input, City of Boston officials are comfortable with the design of the proposed $4 million rehab to Central Square although there still may be a bit of tweaking over the next couple of months.

The fifth in a series of community input meeting regarding the overhaul of the square was hosted by the Boston Transportation Department at the East Boston Social Centers. There, City of Boston Engineer Vineet Guipta said the city feels the city and community has reached a consensus on the square’s design back in January.

The park’s design would include tree allees similar to Copley Square, a restored lawn and park space, retaining wall to add levels to the park and tree groves.

In August 2008, Menino announced the city would spend nearly $4 million on a new design for Central Square.

6. New Library

Despite being wait listed for state funding to build a new, state-of-the-art library on Bremen Street in East Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino decided to go forward with the plan and said the city will flip the bill if state funding is not a reality.

The city applied for a grant of $8 million to help defer the $11.3 million price tag on the new Eastie library from the Massachusetts Board Library Commissioners (MBLC).

However, the MBLC announced that the Eastie project was placed 15th on a wait list of 15 other cities and towns seeking money from the board.

Menino said that he committed to see the project get done with or without state funding.

“This project has always been a priority of mine in East Boston,” said the Mayor. “I made a commitment to the people of East Boston and I plan to follow up on my commitment even if the state doesn’t come through.”

Menino said it is important for residents of Eastie to enjoy a state-of-the-art facility that will meet the needs and growing role that a neighborhood library will play in the future.

“We are at a time when bookstores are going out of business so people are looking to libraries as the single source of books in neighborhoods across the city,” he said.

If the city relied only on a state funding commitment it could have, according to sources, hold up the plans to construct the new library in the neighborhood for over a year.

Construction of the 14,600 square foot, $11.3 million library is slated to begin in spring of 2012 and end in the summer of 2013 with the branch opening in late summer or early fall of 2013.

7. East Boston Neighborhood Health

It’s a monumental project that will forever transform Maverick Square by investing federal stimulus funds to create a brand new health care facility in the area.

Over the summer, the shell of the building that will become the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center’s (EBNHC) main administrative building has been erected and EBNHC administrators are excited by the progress and hope to have the doors open to the new building by the end of 2011.

Back in June 2010 EBNHC officials joined local elected officials and leaders of the health care industry to break ground on what is sure to become an anchor development in the square.

The new, 49,000 square-foot ambulatory care building, which is being funded in part with $12 million of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) money, will allow EBNHC to create new, critically-needed capacity to serve patients in need of primary care, vision services, and dental care. It is the first ARRA-funded project to break ground in the United States.

The $20 million project will help to create over 150 construction jobs and over 50 permanent health care jobs.  An additional benefit of the project will be the anchor it provides to economic development and revitalization efforts in Maverick Square.

The new facility, which will be built on a lot that is largely vacant, will complement a renovated MBTA Blue Line station in the square and other recent improvements.  The building will be LEED certified and fully energy efficient.  The architect for the project is isgenuity, LLC of Needham, Mass. and the project manager is Suffolk Construction, of Boston.

8. Excel Academy’s new home

In 2011 the East Boston-based Friends of Excel Academy Charter Schools Inc., a nonprofit affiliate of Excel Academy Charter Schools, recently purchased the 19,210-square-foot former St. Mary’s School building on Moore Street in East Boston from the Archdiocese of Boston.

Since the purchase there has been a beehive of activity around the building.

Excel’s Director of Network Operations Katie Dankleff said the general contractor is currently working on the interior of the existing building, the building underpinning, and work related to the elevator installation.

“We expect to begin demolition of the convent in January, and will pour the foundation for the new 2,000 sq. ft. addition soon thereafter,” said Dankleff. “In terms of the project, we are progressing toward a summer 2012 completion date and will occupy the building in time for the 2012-13 school year.”

The acquisition funds were provided in part through $5 million in proceeds from a Qualified Zone Academy Bond (QZAB) and tax-exempt bond issue from MassDevelopment.

Excel signed a purchase and sale agreement in February 2011 and began gaining community support for the project, which, judging from a series of community meetings over the year seems like an easy task for the school.

Excel’s plan calls for the demolition of the existing convent, the complete renovation of the existing school building, and the construction of a 2,000-square-foot addition. Architects Arrowstreet also plan on adding a glass solarium as an entranceway to the school and adding attractive landscaping around the campus.

School administrators said the new building will offer more traditional school amenities including larger classrooms, a 1,500-square-foot multi-purpose space, designated space for a computer lab and elements designed to support special education, English-language learner populations and extra-curricular programming, according to a statement.

Excel is a tuition-free public middle school serving more than 200 students in grades five through eight. Most students are from East Boston and Chelsea, and speak a language other than English at home.

Last school year Excel ranked first in the state in English and fourth in the state in math for improving student performance over time and has been identified as a high growth school.

9. Casino Bill

In 2011 state legislature passed and Governor Deval Patrick signed Massachusetts’s expanded gaming bill.

Both Senator Anthony Petruccelli and Representative Carlo Basile had lobbied in favor of an expanded gaming bill that would potentially transform the historic Suffolk Downs Racetrack into one of three resort casinos while saving thousands of local jobs at the track.

The bill passed in the Senate will create an estimated 15,000 jobs in the Commonwealth while delivering millions of dollars in immediate local aid to cities and towns.

The bill creates a five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission with the Governor appointing three members, the Attorney General and Treasurer both appointing one. The Governor would designate the commission chairperson according to the bill. After an extensive licensing process, the commission could authorize one casino in each of three designated regions of the Commonwealth.

The bill also clearly defines the eligibility requirements for gaming licensees. For a resort-style casino the licensing fee would be set at $85 million and capital investment requirements would be $500 million.

The bill states that for a racino license the licensing fee would be $25 million and capital investment requirements would be $125 million—up from a bill previously introduced by Petruccelli’s in April that had investment requirements at $75 million.

Casino revenue would go toward local aid, the state’s stabilization fund, economic development, education, debt reduction, tourism, transportation infrastructure, community mitigation, public health and local capital projects.

10. Marshalls opens in East Boston

A new Marshalls in East Boston’s Central Square opened this year and has been jam packed ever since. No other major chain has caused such a stir in the neighborhood in recent history nor ignited an overnight boost to the local economy that Marshalls had in the past few months.

The store opened on Thursday, March 31 and by Saturday a police detail was called in to make sure traffic inside Liberty Plaza was as smooth as can be. Thousands flocked to the store to take advantage of the deals on brand name fashion and accessories and parking in the plaza was scarce all weekend long.

The 15,275 sq. ft. store features fashion, footwear and accessories with regular store hours from 9:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. on Sundays.

Since opening its first store more than 40 years ago, the Marshalls name has become synonymous with off-price shopping.  Shoppers can find incredible savings on brand name apparel for men, women, teens and children, footwear, accessories and home merchandise, every day.

The new location in Eastie also opened with a Shoe MegaShop featuring brand name shoes for the whole family and The CUBE, a hip, new in-store boutique of contemporary fashions for teens.

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