How Boston’s West End Library Rebuild Unites Segregated City

Boston's first mass timber construction project will convert the city's public library into affordable housing.

Wed 10 Jan 24


Amid pressure to create more housing, Boston uses mass timber to build new housing on top of public buildings in the latest “housing-over-library project”, which will unite the city.

Yesterday, Wood Central reported that Canada is turning to 3D Printing, Mass Timber and a wartime housing policy to kick-start mid-rise accommodation. 

Now, Boston is looking to utilise its 25-plus libraries better to build “up” and reduce pressure on the city’s housing crisis – including a new 11-storey building in the West End, the first in Boston to use cross-laminated timber.

Boston is already home to one of North America’s tighest property markets. However, like wealthy, economically vibrant metro areas across the US and Canada, its high costs and inadequate supply result from poor public policy.

Boston has one of the worst housing markets in the USA, largely due to multi-generational poor public policy – footage courtesy of @NotYourAverageRealtor.

According to US think-tank Brookings Institute, restrictive zoning by Boston’s suburbs creates three problems for the region:

  1. High housing costs impede the regional labour market, making it harder for employers to hire and retain workers.
  2. Limiting housing development near job centres and public transit leads more workers to undertake long-distance solo car commutes, worsening traffic and creating harmful environmental impacts.
  3. Exclusionary zoning by affluent, predominantly white communities exacerbates racial and economic segregation in the region, limiting Black and Latino or Hispanic families’ access to high-opportunity communities.

The housing-above-libraries idea has been in the works since 2018, when the Boston City Council launched a program to consider adding apartments to public properties, such as fire stations, parking lots and public libraries. 

High prices, bidding wars and cash investors have made house hunting a frustrating experience for all but the wealthy in Boston and many of the suburbs – footage courtesy of @cbsboston.

The first projects coming to fruition include libraries in Chinatown (12 stories and 110 units), Upham’s Corner in Dorchester (four stories, 33 units), with the latest to be built the Preservation of Affordable Housing, a city ENGO, an 11-story mass timber West End project.

Rodger Brown, who represents the Preservation of Affordable Housing, or POAH, which won the contract to develop the third “housing-over-library” project, said the developments are essential to make the city whole.

“Boston’s got a long history of being a segregated city,” Brown said. “If we want to be successful moving into the next century and beyond, we’ve got to think about making everybody part of the city’s fabric.”

Mr Brown has the support of Joe Backer, Boston City Council’s superintendent responsible for the development, who said the project is an ideal opportunity to “make this neighbourhood more accessible to families that need affordable housing.”

Screen Shot 2024 01 02 at 12.47.01 PM 1000x561 1
A rendering of the West End development shows the details of the project.

According to Mr Backet, the project is critical to the fabric of the West End, where buildings were demolished in the 1950s to make way for development in Boston’s most controversial urban renewal undertaken.

And unlike affordable housing, which he said is built with an expiration date, the new units will be “affordable in perpetuity, meaning no future owner can convert them to market rate,” he said.

Affordable housing is more costly to build than market-rate developments for several reasons, according to Alexis Smith, a housing specialist who researches construction costs for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

She said affordable development is far more complicated to finance than market-rate developments, as it “involves an array of funding sources from the public sector and government resources.” 

“And compared to market-rate development,” she said, “subsidised construction requires more community outreach and government compliance.”

POAH, the nonprofit developer, will hold a 75% stake in the housing. A Boston-based investment firm, Caste Capital, will own the remaining share. Developers say the West End library apartments could come online by March 2027.

Caste’s Patrick Kimble said this is his firm’s first affordable housing development, which he feels has special significance: “You pair affordable housing with a public asset like a library. It’s pretty symbolic.”


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    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.


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