When state and Chelsea officials converge at 88 Gerrish Ave. on Wednesday it will be to help celebrate the opening next month of 53 loft-style apartments in a converted mill complex. But the ribbon-cutting ceremony will also be an occasion to mark the progress of a four-year effort to create the Box District, a mixed-income residential neighborhood in an area formerly made up of mostly vacant factory buildings.
Atlas Lofts, the new development, is the latest result of that multi-phased initiative the city is pursuing in partnership with the nonprofit Chelsea Neighborhood Developers and Mitchell Properties, the Boston firm that built Atlas Lofts.
Other results include 67 new housing units through two projects carried out by Neighborhood Developers, extensive improvements to public facilities, and what the group calls an emerging sense of community in the area.
So named because some of its old factories manufactured boxes, the Box District is bounded by Gerrish Avenue on the north, Library Street to the south, Broadway on the west, and Willow Street to the east.
“I’m thrilled,’’ City Manager Jay Ash said of the progress of the Box District venture. “For as long as I can remember, people were talking about this area and trying to decide whether this neighborhood should be industrial or residential.’’
Having chosen the latter course, the city lined up partners and “together we’ve figured out how to convert it to something that we have dreamed about,’’ he said. “It’s coming out better than we could have dreamed.’’
Ann Houston, executive director of the Neighborhood Developers group, recalled that when the venture began in 2006, “the Box District was an area that for all intents and purposes had died.’’ She said the fact that 60 percent of the Atlas Lofts units had been rented by this past week — two weeks before its scheduled opening — “signals that we’ve been pretty successful in creating a desirable new neighborhood.’’
David Traggorth, director of development for Mitchell Properties, said the company has been “pleasantly surprised’’ at how quickly its units are being leased.
“People love the building. They love the neighborhood and they feel like they are finding real value in Chelsea,’’ he said, adding that the convenience of the site’s proximity to public transit service into nearby Boston has also attracted tenants.
The Box District began to take shape in 2007.
That year, Neighborhood Developers opened Janus Highland Apartments, 41 affordable apartments at the former Janus Fabrications plant at 21-27 Gerrish Ave.; on Marlborough Street; and at 180 Highland St. at the former Spring Air Mattress factory — commonly referred to as the Atlas site because the company, which relocated to another Chelsea site in 2006, formerly operated under the name Atlas Bedding Manufacturing.
Also in 2007, CND opened Box Works Homes, 26 condominium units — 16 affordable — on another portion of the former Spring Air Mattress site. Box Works Homes and Janus Highland Apartments are adjacent to Atlas Lofts.
CND, meanwhile, refurbished and moved its offices into a building at the corner of Gerrish Avenue and Broadway, at the entrance to the neighborhood.
And in a project that Houston said complemented the revitalization effort, developer Jim D’Amico in 2008 converted a commercial building at 33 Gerrish Ave. to 12 market-rate housing units
As the new housing has gone up, CND has worked to create a sense of neighborhood, such as organizing concerts and dinner parties.
Meanwhile, the city carried out state-funded neighborhood infrastructure upgrades, conducted planning, adopted zoning changes, and is pursuing a state grant to build a neighborhood park on land that it received federal funding to acquire.
The city is pursuing a state grant in connection with the state’s acquisition of abandoned rail line along the edge of the neighborhood. The state selected the rail line as the preferred route of its proposed Urban Ring, a dedicated bus corridor. The grant would look at ways the city might use part of the right-of-way to help revitalize the neighborhood.
And there are more plans for housing.
CND has been permitted to construct 32 affordable rental units at 55 Gerrish Ave., on land it is purchasing from a brass manufacturer next to the site of the planned city park.
And Mitchell Properties is seeking permits for a two-phase project. One calls for building 44 rental units at 44 Gerrish Ave., the former site of Standard Box, whose facility was destroyed by fire in 1997. The second calls for 30 town house-style condominium units at 28 Gerrish Ave. Both would be moderately priced to meet the needs of working families.
Houston said part of the success of the venture is that “we all agreed early on. . . about the kind of neighborhood we wanted,’’ but remained flexible to respond to market conditions.
“I think as a result the neighborhood has developed in a very dynamic way,’’ she said.
John Laidler Boston Globe July 25, 2010