QUINCY, Mass. — Quincy has long been a Mecca for enterprising minds. John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born here. So too were three major businesses: Howard Johnson’s, Grossman’s and Dunkin Donuts.
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“It’s had a tradition of being people who see an opportunity that other people don’t see and have taken it whether it’s the political vision of the Adams, or the business vision that the Grossman’s or Howard Johnson’s had,” said Ed Fitzgerald, Executive Director of the Quincy Historical Society.
Fitzgerald says that Quincy, just eight miles south of Boston and boasting 27 miles of waterfront, was perfectly positioned to become a thriving metropolis.
“If you go back to the 1920s, Quincy Center is known as the busiest intersection in the entire Commonwealth because it’s an interchange of roads. All roads lead here,” Fizgerald said.
And many of the things that attracted people in the 1920s are still draws today.
Take Rob Ross, a Quincy resident.
“I like the water – Boston Harbor, Quincy Bay are all integral parts of Quincy so it keeps me here,” Ross said.
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Paula Mucci says she loves living here, too.
“The spirit of Quincy has kept me in Quincy . I love Wallston, I love Quincy,” Mucci says.
Part of Quincy’s “spirit” is development. Through the early 20th century, rows of wooden houses became brick and mortar mom-and-pop stores. Multi-level department stores like Sears and Remick’s cropped up. And by 1950, signs hung as far as the eye could see.
“It’s sometime around here that the idea of Shoppers Town USA becomes prominent, that this is where you come to shop if you live south of Boston,” Fitzgerald said.
Mark Bertman is part of that -- he owns Rogers, a jewelry store.
“We had just about all the stores in the world it seemed, downtown here. Not major brands like Filenes or Jordan Marsh, but I would have to guess there were 80 or 90 meaningful stores,” Bertman said.
Bertman’s father-in-law worked at the store in the 1940s and in 1960, they bought it. In those years, Bertman said, Quincy was nothing short of vibrant.
“Saturday was a huge day. Friday night at the movies. Saturday the kids would be dropped off. It was in amount of people – a lot of people up and down the street,” Bertman said.
But things changed when the New Haven railroad closed down, which brought traincars full of people to Quincy. The Southeast Expressway was finished and in 1961, the South Shore Plaza opened.
“People began moving further and further out in the suburbs and it was no longer necessary or necessarily easy to get to Quincy to shop,” Fitzgerald said.
Bertman’s business still feels the effects of that change.
“We used to be open before Christmas every single night from November through December and we were busy as could be. Now we open 3 nights before Christmas and there’s no one here,” Bertman said.
One-by-one, stores moved out, shut down or were dismantled altogether.
“We’re the only one left on the original downtown strip. There is just no one else here anymore,” Bertman said.
The center that was once known as the busiest intersection in the commonwealth gradually became a rundown relic of the 1950s.
“It’s gone downhill. There’s not a heck of a lot in terms of shopping – if you want your hair done or nails done, I guess it’s a good spot to go. But it does need to be redone,” Ross said.
So right now, if you stand on Hancock Street in downtown Quincy, what used to be Shoppers Town USA is home to dollar stores and nail salons.
But, according to one developer, this will all be gone by 2025, replaced by higher end businesses, hotels and places to call home.
Street Works developer Richard Heapes spent the past five years amassing 50 acres of land to redevelop by buying out downtown businesses.
“I’ve got to figure – in a time when you don’t have eminent domain to condemn people, which we have not used here, this is probably the largest assembly of land in the East Coast,” Heapes said.
And it’s also the first-of-its-kind public-private partnership in Massachusetts. In January, Street Works struck a $1.3 billion redevelopment deal with the city.
“The city wants to redevelop their downtown. Unfortunately the infrastructure -- meaning sewers, telephone lines, plumbing, streets, sidewalks -- are completely obsolete, out of date and require about $300 million dollars of new work,” Heapes said.
So Heapes will build it, and then, if businesses are in the buildings and paying their taxes, the tenants will buy it back.
“The tenants have to be there and the taxes have to be flowing to the city coffers and of course we have to build what we said we would build,” Heapes explained.
The plans are sweeping: Two hotels, over a million square feet of office space, a movie theatre and 1,200 new apartments. Traffic patterns will change too, with a rotary to be replaced by a common.
“We’ve found that there’s been a desire to get back to your roots of a community, back to main street America,” Heapes said. “people wanting to move downtown again, people wanting to work downtown again, walk down the sidewalk and bump into your neighbor – that’s the experience we’re bringing back as it was in the 50s.”
The people who already live here say a change is long overdue.
“They’re trying to make it like downtown Boston, which is good. It’s a big city and they need it,” said Nathan Nicholson.
Danielle Souza agrees.
“I think that’s great. I mean – I think it will make it beautiful. It’s pretty down here anyways, but I think it’s wonderful,” Souza said.
The first wrecking ball has already hit, with one building coming down. But large-scale construction isn’t slated to begin for another year.
“I’m guessing this could take 8-10 years, when it’s all finally done. You don’t build a city overnight. I’m hoping in the year 2025 we’re walking around and it’s completely done,” Heapes said.
However long it takes, Mark Bertman says he’s not going anywhere.
“I’m really excited about the whole thing. I really am,” Bertman said. “I just hope it doesn’t get bogged down and people don’t get discouraged.”
If Street Works can pull it off, they’ll join the ranks of entrepreneurial royalty -- seeing an opportunity where others did not -- and reinventing the city of Presidents one more time.
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