Fenway’s Formidable Force

As it celebrates its 28th anniversary, Boston’s Fenway Community Development Corporation (FCDC) is at an interesting point in its history. The need to preserve and develop affordable housing in the Fenway hasn’t gone away, but the battle is being fought on a whole new level. In 1973, FCDC’s founders were chaining themselves to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s building to prevent the Society from tearing it down. Recently, they chained themselves to computers, and, at the request of the Society and the building’s tenants, put together a complex real estate transaction to renovate that same building and keep it affordable.

This spirit of adapting has allowed FCDC to survive. Their comfort with playing what Executive Director Carl Koechlin calls an “insider/outsider role” with the Fenway community and the city of Boston has allowed them to work in partnership with some of the same people with whom they were once at odds. “[There is] the person who shakes the tree and the person who picks up the fruit,” says Koechlin, “Twenty-five years ago, we were the outsiders, the tree shakers. I think we’ve evolved more into the jam maker role. The tools that are at our disposal … have changed.”

In its “jam maker” role, FCDC has developed 584 units of housing, of which it still owns and operates about half. Another 82 are expected to break ground with a new affordable assisted living project this Spring. A project they completed in 1989 for the elderly, disabled and people with AIDS represented the first new construction in the Fenway in about 40 years. In recent years, FCDC instituted a Walk To Work program, which has placed about 240 Fenway residents into jobs while alleviating traffic congestion. It also provides job training, computer training, tutoring, an afterschool program and a first-time homebuyers class.

These projects have given FCDC more of a legitimate voice says Koechlin. “We have greater capacity, leverage and influence because we are helping the city and others meet their goals of stabilizing the neighborhood,” he says. “To a larger degree than ever before the city looks to us and relies on us to do the things we do. That gives us some leverage, and the power is more even than it was 25 years ago when we were struggling to have our voices heard.” Nonetheless, FCDC has by no means abandoned its roots “outside” in the community; organizing accounts for 20 percent of its operating budget.

Heating Up
FCDC has always relied on acquiring property fairly inexpensively to be able to turn it into affordable housing. But today, the Fenway’s real estate market is skyrocketing, and it’s become more difficult to find workable deals. Koechlin says a rent on a two-bedroom apartment has probably doubled over the last six years, from $1000 to $2000 per month. Nonetheless, average income in the Fenway is substantially below the city’s. Of Boston’s 15 neighborhoods, the Fenway has the 11th highest household income – and the 5th highest housing prices.

“I think the Fenway has been victimized by a series of external forces over the 25 or 30 years that we’ve been around,” says Koechlin. “In good times, speculation and gentrification has hit here very hard. And disinvestment has also hit the neighborhood very hard. Right now we’re in a ‘good cycle,’ where real estate prices are out of sight, which obviously has a downside for neighborhood residents. We feel like if we don’t pay attention, the neighborhood will change dramatically and our constituents will be pushed out.”

The hot market has also made organizing difficult. Many long-time residents moved out of the Fenway around 1996 after the defeat of rent control. “What has happened is that we’ve got a yuppie neighborhood [with residents who] don’t really view the Fenway as their long-term home,” says Lisa Soli, FCDC board president. “It’s sort of a way station on their way to buying a larger home or getting a house in the suburbs or whatever, which makes organizing particularly challenging because we don’t have that stable base of people who really view the Fenway as an important place for themselves.”

But, Soli says, in order to accomplish much of anything in Boston, organizing is a must; and FCDC’s connections “outside” in the community and “inside” city government aid them greatly. “Even around development,” she explains. “For example, the affordable assisted living project is requiring a great deal of organization between the neighbors and the seniors and various people to get the city involved in it and make sure the thing continues on track. Nothing is ever easy around here.”

More Than A Game
Since 1999, one of FCDC’s major organizing battles has been around a famous Boston institution, Fenway Park. The home of baseball’s Red Sox wants to build a new stadium with an additional 10,000 seats. FCDC feels that the proposed ballpark would be too large and too close to the neighborhood, overwhelming it and leaving no “buffer zone.”

Balancing “insider/outsider” roles has served FCDC well in this fight. Utilizing its “outsider” skills, FCDC joined organizing forces with another community organization called Save Fenway Park. Together, they developed, organized and funded a design symposium where architects, ballpark experts and urban planners from around the country created alternative plans for renovating or reconstructing Fenway Park on its existing site. FCDC’s credibility as a developer helped the effort receive positive press coverage, as well as praise from several members of Boston’s city council. The process is currently on hold as the team scrambles for sufficient financing; but it’s less likely that it will succeed with any additional requests to the city, in part due to FCDC’s effort.

The publicity around the new ballpark has also allowed FCDC to promote its Urban Village Plan, which it would like to develop in lieu of the new ballpark. The plan includes a family-friendly urban village center, housing, a neighborhood school, a community center, resident-oriented stores, and businesses to serve and employ many of the Fenway’s residents.

“The Fenway is once again engaged in a zoning process and we are attempting pretty successfully to get the urban village guidelines put into the zoning,” says Soli. “[Although] the city continues to feel that a ballpark on the main street is not a bad thing, we’ve actually had some good luck organizing around [the Urban Village] because it’s definitely … the way people would like to see themselves living.”

Blending the insider skills of development and planning with an outsider commitment to organizing is an art; and it’s one that has made FCDC a formidable force in the Fenway community.

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