By Judith Garcia, Chelsea City Council and UPPLI Participant
Chelsea’s history is filled with great successes and some disappointing failures. At one time, the city was a leading manufacturer of wooden sailing vessels. Its factories created shoes, stoves, and precision timepieces. The Chelsea Clock Company is one of America’s oldest and finest.
The city has also been the site of devastating fires, poverty, and corruption. Following its economic collapse in 1990, Chelsea was placed in receivership. From that point, and the low point of corruption that preceded it, Chelsea created a new city charter to restore its governance and secure a stronger future.
Today, Chelsea is starting to realize the potential so many have seen for so long. One of those visionaries was a real estate developer named Anthony C. Simboli, who took a chance in the years after the Great Fire of 1973 and built new office buildings to lure new businesses back to Chelsea. In fact, Chelsea’s recent explosion of growth culminated with Simboli’s construction of the new regional headquarters for Boston’s FBI offices, which recently opened on Maple Street.
Chelsea is home to active commercial and industrial space, as well as a diverse complement of urban living options, combining new construction with older, less-expensive properties. All this was made possible because of the risks various developers have taken over the years—risks I never completely understood until I had a chance to put myself in the shoes of a real estate developer.
Recently I was invited – along with six other newly elected public officials from cities and towns around the Commonwealth – to take part in the inaugural class of ULI Boston/New England’s Urban Plan Public Leadership Institute. The goal of the Institute is to give elected officials the opportunity to gain a better understanding of real estate and land use fundamentals, by focusing on leadership, integrated problem solving, public/private collaboration and peer-to-peer learning.
We received a briefing on the public-private partnership that is transforming 13 blocks of public housing in Charlestown, known as the Bunker Hill Apartments. It was the first time I had a chance to fully understand how a developer evaluates a project and takes the necessary steps to get a deal financed, permitted and built.
After the briefing, I and my newly elected colleagues were transformed into developers and site planners to respond to a fictional request for proposal to convert a blighted area into a mixed-use neighborhood. After months of learning about the municipal process, each of us had to step out of our roles as elected officials and be the real estate developer. Speaking for myself, I will say the task was not easy.
As I have settled into my role as a member of the Chelsea City Council, I have studied how the rapid pace of change is affecting our community. The exercise of orchestrating a fictional neighborhood’s future and character with Lego pieces helped me recognize that development is about more than just building. There are multiple stakeholders and multiple goals to achieve, while also trying to earn a sufficient return on investment.
Each of the participants in the exercise had the same goal: to transform an area of blight into a vibrant, healthy community that would benefit current residents, as well as newcomers. Doing so, helped me recognize that developers have genuine concerns about how the places they create will affect the character of a community.
I came to better understand that being a developer requires a long-term perspective; it involves taking into consideration the needs of different stakeholders, while measuring risk and evaluating how contentious issues can be solved through negotiation, concession and understanding. Being a politician requires the ability to balance the needs of the public and private sector. We have the responsibility of choosing the right plans and the right partners with whom we can collaborate. And, in order to do that, we must enter honestly into our relationships with developers, so we can trust them to change the urban landscape, and still deliver on our promise to improve quality of life for our residents and businesses.
Fresh from my experience in the Urban Plan Public Policy Leadership Institute, I am able to envision a Chelsea that both develops an outer-rim with mixed-use development, while it preserves its historic character and nurtures healthy residential neighborhoods in its core.