Special to the Times-Free Press
The family that once operated a successful casket manufacturing company on Bennington Street recently filed a Draft Project Impact Report (DPIR) with the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) in connection with their plans to construct a mixed-use development on the now vacant site.
The Tobia Family, who ran the New England Casket Company at 1141 Bennington St. for over seven decades until a fire destroyed the business, is looking to construct 220 new units of housing and commercial space at the site of the former company.
Redgate, the development team working with the Tobia Family, has scheduled a virtual meeting with the project’s Impact Advisory Group (IAG) on Thursday, Jan. 26 at 6pm and a virtual public meeting with the BPDA on Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 6pm.
In March 2019, an enormous 9-alarm fire ripped through the Tobia Family’s historic business that gained international fame as one of the premier casket manufacturing companies in the country.
After generations of operating the business, the Tobia Family made the painful decision not to rebuild after the devastating fire.
“It was a very tough decision,” said Louis Tobia Jr., whose Italian grandfather founded the casket company 75 years ago. “Before the fire we carved out a really good niche in the industry making custom high-end caskets.”
Before the fire destroyed the company’s manufacturing plant just past Orient Heights MBTA station, New England Casket catered mostly to Jewish Orthodox families and high-profile clients. Celebrities like Muhammed Ali, John McCain, Heath Ledger, Walter Cronkite, Joan Rivers and Tip O’Neill were all interred in New England Casket Company Caskets. Over the years, the family won numerous awards in the industry for its innovation and quality casket design.
“We had every intention after the fire to reopen,” said Tobia. “Sadly, however we weren’t going to be able to rebuild the building and reopen where we were at business-wise and financially.”
Tobia said the family looked to Lawrence, Amesbury, and even upstate New York to rebuild the business from the ground up.
“But we came to the conclusion we couldn’t do it without the employees from East Boston, Revere and Somerville,” said Tobia. “Some of these workers had been with us for 40 years.”
Now, four years after the fire, Tobia and his family want to construct a 220-units of housing and some retail space on the acre-plus site.
“We interviewed 25 to 30 companies and they brought proposals for everything from a hotel to a warehouse to a self-storage facility,” said Tobia. “We decided in the end that Redgate’s plan for a housing development with some retail space was the best option for us and the community.”
The Tobia Family teamed up with Redgate, a downtown developer, to build a residential complex on the Bennington Street site.
One feature that Tobia hopes will spark community support is the family’s plans to keep a lot of open space around the development and enhance accessibility to the Belle Isle Marsh behind the property.
“My dad and I have enjoyed having coffee and speaking with our neighbors about the future. We have tried to listen and incorporate neighborhood suggestions such as increased open space and retail opportunities in our proposal,” said Tobia.
Community benefits listed in the DPIR include: More than 14% of the total approved units exceeding the City’s IDP standards, including 29 units at 70% area median income (AMI) and 2 units at 100% AMI; Construction of approximately 1,144 sq. ft. of retail space along Bennington Street; Planting of more than 35 new shade and ornamental trees on and/or adjacent to the site to promote development of new urban tree canopy to combat urban heat island effect, and to mitigate the impacts of climate change; as well as improving stormwater quality by capturing, treating, and infiltrating stormwater runoff from the site and large portions of Austin Avenue, which under existing conditions runs off into Belle Isle Marsh uncontrolled and untreated.
Other highlights listed in the DPIR include:
Addition of appropriate residential height and density near transit to support PLAN: East Boston’s goals. The project is adjacent to the accessible MBTA Orient Heights Station, which is serviced by the Blue Line subway and multiple bus routes.
Provide a higher proportion of 2+ bedroom IDP units, meeting the needs of the area households and enabling more equitable access to housing options.
Provide 220 bicycle storage spaces for residents, located along an accessible route with direct access to the building exterior and supply of 44 publicly accessible short-term bicycle storage spaces for visitors.
Supply of 31 EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment)-installed parking spaces and 90 EV (electric vehicle)-ready parking spaces in compliance with the City’s EV Readiness Policy for New Developments.
Installation of a system capable of infiltrating groundwater at a volume equal to 1.25- inches of rainfall over the site. Incorporation of green infrastructure within the public realm, including tree pits, planters, and landscaped areas to contribute to stormwater absorption and groundwater attenuation.
Visit www.bostonplans.org/projects/development-projects/1141-bennington-street for more information on the project, upcoming meetings and how to submit a public comment.