The Little Engine That May
Views on the Leather District's Future Varied but Upbeat
March 3, 1996
By Robert O'Malley
Chinatown - When businessman Richard Kong imagines the future of the Leather District, he sees new Chinatown businesses catering to an upscale Chinese clientele and workers from the Financial District.
Robert Berman, a real estate manager and developer whose great-grandfather had a business in the district, envisions the area as an adjunct to the Financial District and an attractive working environment for creative professionals, high-tech firms and incubator businesses.
"These are not mutually exclusive visions," noted Larry Rosenblum, an architect and filmmaker who has been working and living in the Leather District for more than a decade.
An island of late 19th century buildings between the South Station train and bus terminals and Chinatown, the district was once the site of a thriving leather industry. And now, isolated by highways and major arteries and long in decline, the district appears to be passing through yet another of its many transitions.
"This has been an area that has been a quiet little engine for a lot of good things that have happened in Boston," said Berman.
Tenants have traditionally been drawn to the area for its reasonable rents, safety, proximity to the Financial District and public transportation, and its spacious, naturally-lit buildings, some of which are historically significant.
"I think it's always going to have its funkiness," added David Martinez, a clothing designer who says it's the only section of the city where he would consider working.
Rosenblum and others contend that the center of Boston is gravitating toward the South Station area, and want the city to put in new street lighting, sidewalks and trees to improve the district's appeal and offset the negative impact of current and future Central Artery construction. He said the city has so far only agreed to install new street lights on Lincoln and South Streets.
Peter Scarpignato, a spokesman for the public works commissioner of Boston, said, "We've agreed to reconstruct Lincoln and South Streets from Kneeland Street to the Surface Artery." Preliminary work is expected to start soon.
A longtime resident who has witnessed some of the district's earlier transitions, Rosenblum recalls how he and others persuaded the city in the early 1980s to allow residential uses in the area, a change that attracted more photographers, artists and art galleries.
With the onset of the real estate "feeding frenzy that gripped the country" as the decade progressed, "we started to see the value of these places skyrocket," said Rosenblum.
In time, however, overbuilding in the city and the recession combined to increase vacancies and drive down rents, causing some mortgage foreclosures and bargains for would-be property investors. "The financial community bit off more than it could chew," said Leo Buk Lhu, an investor who owns three buildings in the district.
While the area continues to house an eclectic mix of tenants, Mike Witt, an owner of the JMW Gallery on Lincoln Street, worries that the retail component of the neighborhood is in decline. He noted that all but a handful of the district's art galleries have departed, in part to avoid the negative impact of Central Artery construction and to take advantage of decreased rents on the more heavily-trafficked Newbury Street.
In recent months, the impact of artery utility relocation work on traffic and pedestrians has been severe along South Street.
"We've lost about $60,000 of business in November and December," said Lorenzo Savona, an owner of Les Zygomates restaurant at 129 South St. "I love the neighborhood," said Savona. But he added that construction work on the street has made it difficult for customers to park and officials have been slow to respond to his requests for signs and other measures to mitigate the problem.
Robin Bavaro, spokeswoman for the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel, said, "They feel like they have accommodated them as quickly as they possibly can, once they make their request." She said they put up a sign telling people how to get to a parking garage to help restaurant customers. Street-level directional maps to local businesses are planned, she said.
"It's definitely changing," said Christina Lanzl, director of the Bromfield Gallery at 107 South St. "It's going to be more of a neighborhood where people live than just businesses." She and others note that several residential condominium conversions are underway or being planned in the district.
Although the busy Surface Artery has traditionally deterred Chinatown businesses and services from expanding into the Leather District, that doesn't appear to be stopping them now. In 1983, the South Cove Community Health Center purchased a six-story building at 145 South St. in the heart of the Leather District and plans to invest $5 million to renovate it. In October, the health center opened a new Family Life Center there.
South Cove purchased the building to alleviate overcrowding at its Chinatown site. "We felt it was close enough to Chinatown that we could still remain connected to Chinatown as a community," said South Cove executive director Jean Chin. "We feel we now have sites that anchor us at both ends of Chinatown."
Several other Chinese organizations and businesses are also located in the district now. "I think more people are looking for stores over here," said Kong, owner of the Mei Tung Supermarket on Lincoln Street. "I think in the future - in a few more years - there should be more Chinese occupying the stores."
Kong, who envisions the area becoming "a classy section of Chinatown," plans to open a mall with seven Asian ethnic restaurants in the parking garage complex where his market is located. He will also open a bakery there and is considering developing a restaurant on its top floor.
While one property owner expressed concern over the effect that Chinatown restaurants and markets would have on the district - particularly as a result of improper trash disposal and cluttered streets - Gary Wong, the owner of United Foods, Inc., at 170 Lincoln St., said he recognizes the need to adapt to the changed environment.
Wong said he has tried to make his business signs more discreet and keep his storefront neat. He said his goal is "to blend into the neighborhood because the neighborhood is a little different" from Chinatown.
"There's a window of opportunity now to expand Chinatown into the Leather District," said Lhu, who has been trying to interest the Asian American Bank and Trust Co. in locating an office in the Leather District.
"I don't see old Chinatown businesses moving in here," said Lhu, a director and major shareholder of the Asian American Bank. "Support businesses and the American-born businesses will move in here."
"I think the district has the capacity to take in a lot of different people with a lot of different ideas," he said. "I think it's a melting pot."
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