Fine dining in substation goal of 3 would-be developers

October 24, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Photo courtesy Scott Fayette Architects
The Roslindale substation as it exists today. The photo is from WaterMark Development & Construction, which proposes turning it into a restaurant and lounge.

ROSLINDALE VILLAGE—The century-old MBTA substation at Washington Street and Cummins Highway, a lifeless spot in Roslindale Village for 40 years, will likely be reborn as a high-profile restaurant.

A city-led redevelopment effort this month attracted three star-studded development teams. Two of the teams include top Boston restaurateurs.

The redevelopment is shaping up as much more than just filling a gap in the business district. There is talk of a South End or Jamaica Plain style of nightlife coming to the Village. The popular local Delfino Restaurant is considering an offer to join one team as well.

“All three are heavy hitters,” said Carter Wilkie, president of the Roslindale Village Main Street (RVMS), about the development teams. They include Diamond/Sinacori with Hart Development Associates; Urbanica, Inc.; and JP’s WaterMark Development & Construction. Restaurateurs involved include those behind the South End’s popular Banq and Beehive restaurants.

The developers will present their proposals at a Nov. 5 community meeting. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) will probably choose a winning plan in January.

The dream is to bring the building back to life by its 100th birthday in 2011, Wilkie said. All of the would-be developers are experts in historic preservation.

Mayor Thomas Menino has been involved in at least 15 years of efforts to renovate the substation. He said in a press statement that “it will be a great benefit to the neighborhood to see this building activated.”

The proposals are coming at a time of renewal in Roslindale Village. The renovated city community center opened across the street this spring, and a new redevelopment plan is in the works for the old Gulf gas station nearby.

The quality of developers attracted to the substation speaks generally about the growth of Roslindale Village and its restaurant reputation, Wilkie said.

“Where Roslindale is now is where Jamaica Plain was in the early to mid-’90s,” he said.

Scott Payette, a JP architect on the WaterMark team, said the substation could become a “real cultural anchor” for the neighborhood like the Milky Way Lounge & Lanes is in JP. “It’s putting something in Roslindale that is a bit more urbane,” he said.

Urbanica President Kamran Zahedi said Roslindale Village quickly won him over with its commercial possibilities.

“I wasn’t very familiar with Roslindale,” he said. “I found the square is very vibrant. There are lots of nice restaurants and nice shops.”

Merrill Diamond, the principal partner of Diamond/Sinacori, did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.
Empty years

The substation, which looks like a large brick house, was built in 1911 to house electrical equipment for MBTA trolleys that used to run on Washington Street. The MBTA stopped using the substation around 1970 and simply locked it up.

With such a key location and a relatively attractive historic look, the substation has drawn various redevelopment ideas over the years. But financial realism got in the way.

The last serious proposal was in 1995, when the Greater Roslindale Medical and Dental Center proposed moving in. The organization even received a city grant for the move. But then it encountered expensive pollution cleanup problems in the substation, including old lead batteries, asbestos and decades of pigeon droppings.

A big difference today is that the MBTA cleaned up all the pollution and removed all of the old equipment. The inside of the substation now is just a giant single room with a 35-foot ceiling and a bare floor. There is also a usable basement space that is just as clean.

Another difference is that the BRA now owns the property. It bought the substation from the MBTA last year for $374,000, according to BRA spokesperson Jessica Shumaker. (When it is sold to the winning developer, the MBTA will get up to $6,000 more from the sale price.)

RVMS helped organize community meetings that shaped the BRA’s request for proposals issued earlier this year. Wilkie said that all three development proposals meet the major community desires: historic preservation, encouraging commercial foot-traffic, non-residential uses and investment by for-profit companies.

It appears that all three developers intend to use historic preservation tax credits to help make their projects financially feasible.

Wilkie noted yet another difference-maker in the substation’s fate: Roslindale Village’s recent reputation as a lively commercial district.

“In lots of Main Streets districts across the country, [there are] these big, white-elephant buildings, and people say, ‘If only we could fill that,’” Wilkie said. But in fact, he said, “Only if you have fixed all the little things around you are you able to fill in that big space.”

“[The substation is] really a keystone property in our business district,” Wilkie said. And just like the construction of an actual arch, “You drop the keystone in last.”

WaterMark

WaterMark proposes adding a second floor inside the building, putting a restaurant/bar on the first floor and a lounge with live entertainment upstairs.

“The key is, does the community want live entertainment and does it want something of a nightlife?” said WaterMark owner Jeff Goodman.

His team includes Darryl Settles, founder of the Beehive restaurant in the Boston Center for the Arts and the BeanTown Jazz Festival.

Goodman also invited Delfino to consider moving in because it appears to be “bursting at the seams.”

“I did express some interest,” said Delfino owner Stephen Judge, saying that his current lease expires in a couple of years and he and his landlord are “far apart” in negotiations. “I will be looking for space eventually, in or out of the square,” Judge said, adding that his discussion with WaterMark was just a casual introduction.

The WaterMark proposal includes a possible outdoor roof deck for the lounge. “The views are spectacular in all four directions,” Goodman said, adding that the idea could be a “non-starter” because of historic preservation issues.

Payette, the team’s architect, has designed the renovation of an MBTA substation before—the recent transformation of one in JP’s Egleston Square into the award-winning headquarters for BNN-TV, in partnership with Urban Edge. The JP and Roslindale substations were both built around the same time by the same architects.

“It’s very good to have someone who’s walked the path before,” Goodman said.

Payette said the Roslindale substation should be a bit easier to adapt, but is also in worse condition. “The building does have some apparent serious structural issues,” he said, including cracking caused by rusting steel beams and probable roof problems.

WaterMark regularly performs historic home restorations. It also restored its headquarters in the former White Rock Bottling Company building on Columbus Avenue on the JP/Roxbury border. “We’re very familiar with this kind of work,” Goodman said.

“It’s an interesting building. It speaks to another time,” Goodman said of the substation. “I always love the New England brick buildings, the quasi-industrial buildings.”

Urbanica

Urbanica’s proposal calls for a “unique destination restaurant,” possibly with live entertainment, that would occupy the main floor. No new floors would be added, leaving a dramatic high ceiling.

The basement floor could be an expansion of the restaurant or some other use, Zahedi said, providing a variety of suggestions: a cooking school, a function room, a bookstore, a florist.

Urbanica’s team includes the groups behind two acclaimed restaurants: Banq, in a former South End bank building, and Fore Street in Portland, Me. In 2002, “Gourmet” magazine put Fore Street at number 16 on its list of the country’s 50 best restaurants.

Urbanica has a nearly 30-year history of historic restoration/renovation projects, often combining old buildings with sleek modern additions. “Our idea is, basically go in and fuse a modern feeling into the building,” Zahedi said.

The company’s work includes the conversion of former police stations into condo buildings in the South End and Somerville.

Zahedi said he found it financially and aesthetically better to not add new floors, taking advantage of the substation’s high ceilings and windows. (The windows are currently bricked up.)

“It’s as nice inside as you see from the outside,” he said. “I think it’s kind of a shame if you try to chop it down into small rooms.”
Diamond/Sinacori

Diamond/Sinacori drew acclaim for its recent Waterworks condo project in Chestnut Hill. That involved renovating historic buildings in a landscape designed by Emerald Necklace architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Its proposal would put a restaurant on the basement level and include a sunken outdoor seating area. Office space would occupy the rest of the building—on the main floor and two new floors added inside.

The list of team members does not include any specific restaurant group.
Next steps

The community meeting with all three development teams will be held Nov. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Roslindale Community Center, 6 Cummins Highway. A two-week public comment period will follow to advise the BRA in its selection of a winning proposal.

Any actual redevelopment will go through another public process. “[Residents] still get to weigh in on the nitty-gritty of the [winning] project,” Shumaker said.