What’s Next for the Boston East Site?

The Boston East Site on Border Street. The project to bring 200 units to the site has stalled, like most waterfront development on East Boston’s shore.

A small section of Border Street next to McDonald’s is all that remains of East Boston maritime history—a place that gave birth to majestic era of Clipperships.

Now, a rusted wrought-iron fence, crumbling brick columns and old docks are all one sees there.

But beyond the fence, rotting pier pilings and unkempt landscape are the views. With these waterfront views of the Leonard P. Zakim Bridge, the Tobin Bridge, and Bunker Hill Monument Eastie residents always thought it would be no problem to attract development on the 14-acre parcel known as the Boston East Site.

In 2005, the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) narrowed the search for someone to develop the city-owned site down to two residential proposals after a two-year process.

The two developers, Trinity Border Street, LLC (a combined effort by Trinity Financial Inc. and East Boston Community Development Corp (CDC) and Border Street Partners, LLC, brought two very different visions for the site.

Trinity at the time proposed 200 housing units, 13 percent of which would be affordable, a marina with space for 116 slips, and a gallery named after famed Eastie shipbuilder Donald McKay that would provide a venue for art exhibits and community events. Trinity Financial valued the project at $96.9 million.

Border Street Partners, LLC wanted to put 50 units of housing, shops, a waterfront park with benches and marine history displays highlighting McKay’s shipbuilding, off-season boat storage center, as well as a boat repair and service center. It values the project at $22.5 million.

At a series of community meeting, residents seemed to favor the latter because it appeared much smaller and more in tune with the surrounding neighborhood and shopping district.

Those who spoke favorably about Trinity’s project liked the idea of a marina; a gallery named after McKay, community spaces and a Harborwalk but in the end thought the scale of the residential building was too large.

“It’s monstrous,” said one resident. “I like some aspects but it’s going to be so big that when you drive or walk by it’s going to take away that great view from Border Street.”

In the end, Trinity won out and was awarded the land for development.

As the years progressed things began to change. Subsequent meetings showed the affordable component doubled from the 13 to 26 percent and rumors began floating around that Trinity was having a tough time getting financing.

Last year, nearly six years after being awarded the parcel the Boston East Site development project is on hold. Like most waterfront development along Eastie’s shores that have stalled and the developer confirmed that they were finding it hard to get financing for a condominium project in this down real estate market.

Last year, Trinity’s former Project Manager Sarah Barnat said the development team was trying to figure out the most cost effective way to move forward and went before the Department of Neighborhood Development to ask for an extension on the project’s permitting. The extension was granted.

Trinity cannot purchase the property until it finalizes permitting so they will remain DND’s designated developer until permitting is completed.

Trinity also still needs to get approval on its final Environmental Impact Report and Chapter 91 license.

Trinity then began floating the idea of switching from a 200-condo unit project to an all rental project that again increases the affordable housing component. Trinity was unsure how many units would be affordable but those units would be 60 percent of the medium income. A family of four would have to make under $50,000 a year to rent an apartment at Boston East under those guidelines.

Rumors began floating that instead of walking away from the project after its inability to secure financing, Trinity began working outside the scope of its original proposal pitched to the community.  To secure funding it was reported that Trinity was working to secure funding through low-income housing tax credits and Federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants.

If true, this would force Trinity to up the affordable units considerably in order to meet with funding guidelines.

This has alarmed some in the neighborhood because a major waterfront development project may be turning into a subsidized housing project. Trinity and the CDC are known more for affordable and subsidized housing projects in the neighborhood like Maverick Gardens, the Barnes School Elderly Housing complex and the new 174 Maverick St. development than they are for building market rate housing in Eastie.

Some in the neighborhood are now asking whether or not the city should send the project back out to bid if Trinity can’t get the development done the way it was originally pitched to residents.

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