A model of Harbor Point, a mixed-income community in Boston that was transformed from public housing in the early 1980s by a developer named Joe Corcoran and the architecture firm Goody, Clancy & Associates.
Brad Vest A model of Harbor Point, a mixed-income community in Boston that was transformed from public housing in the early 1980s by a developer named Joe Corcoran and the architecture firm Goody, Clancy & Associates.

Although Americans regularly pay lip service to the value of diversity, the truth is that people of different incomes generally choose—for a variety of reasons—to live apart. Nevertheless, since 1992, the federal government has spent more than $5 billion to encourage the rich and poor to live side by side. The so-called Hope VI program has awarded several hundred block grants to scores of cities around the country to replace the barracklike public housing projects of the 1950s with a blend of subsidized and market housing.

Replacing the projects, which concentrate the poor in isolated enclaves, with mixed-income neighborhoods certainly sounds like a great idea. But what does it take to make a successful socially engineered community that departs so radically from the American mainstream? The model for the Hope VI program was a pioneering housing experiment in Boston called Harbor Point, the nation’s first attempt to transform a large dysfunctional federal public housing project into a mixed-income planned community. Now 25 years old, Harbor Point, perhaps more than other projects, can help answer that difficult question.

Harbor Point occupies 50 acres on Columbia Point, a peninsula jutting into Dorchester Bay, just south of downtown Boston. Today, Columbia Point is best known for I. M. Pei’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, but for three decades it was the site of the city’s largest—and most notorious—public housing project. In 1954, M. A. Dyer, a local firm, designed 27 nearly identical three- and seven-story apartment buildings, deployed on super-blocks à la Ville Radieuse. The architecture followed the no-frills style of public housing of that era: utilitarian, flat-roof boxes. Although the project functioned reasonably well at first, by the 1970s, thanks to the absence of screening, lax management, and general neglect, it had become a no-man’s land of crack houses, street crime, and lawlessness. By 1979, things were so bad that three-quarters of the 1,504 housing units were boarded up and vacant. In 1980, the Boston Housing Authority, which had been successfully sued for dereliction by the remaining tenants, was placed in receivership.

Two years later, the City of Boston did something unexpected. With federal approval, it leased the whole project to a real estate developer to rebuild as a privately managed residential community. Two-thirds of the new units would be market rate, but the remainder would be subsidized social housing. Simply put, the idea was that the former would cross-subsidize—and stabilize—the latter. This was, in many ways, a desperate gamble: Blending public housing into a commercial development had never been tried before on this scale; in addition, it was unclear if middle-class tenants would want to live in an isolated site in a distinctly unfashionable part of the city. On the other hand, the waterfront location was attractive and only 10 minutes from downtown on the T. 

The original public housing project at Columbia Point.
Credit: Spencer Grant

The original public housing project at Columbia Point.

Harbor Point is the brainchild of a developer named Joe Corcoran, who founded Corcoran Jennison Companies in 1971. As Jane Roessner recounts in A Decent Place to Live, a history of the project published in 2000, it was Corcoran who first approached the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the idea of turning Columbia Point public housing into a mixed-income community. The son of Irish immigrants, Corcoran had grown up in Dorchester, attended Boston College High School at Columbia Point, and watched the construction—and eventual decay—of the public housing project there. “I hated public housing,” he told me when we met in his Columbia Point office. “Warehousing low-income families all in one place was a formula for social disaster.”

He and his partners, Joe Mullins and Gary Jennison, developed an unusual solution for integrating public housing into a market-oriented residential community: They made the public housing tenants partners in the project. Corcoran admits that there were practical advantages to this arrangement. “When you show up at a meeting with a group of poor people on your side, it’s hard for the politicians to turn you down,” he says. But more important, sharing responsibility was a way of ensuring the continued success of a mixed-income community.

The unprecedented tenant control that Corcoran advocates includes full and equal partnership during the design phase—both sides must agree on all decisions—active participation in day-to-day management, as well as a stake in the financial success of the development. “The tenants’ council gets 10 percent of the cash flow to finance its operations,” he says.

The council has 12 elected members, seven from the subsidized tenants and five from the market tenants—the disparity reflecting that subsidized tenants tend to be long-time residents (eight years on average at Harbor Point), compared to market tenants (less than two years). Every month, representatives from the council and from the developer meet to discuss ongoing problems such as tenant complaints, maintenance issues, and evictions. “After our experience, we won’t do a mixed-income project unless the tenants are partners,” Corcoran says.

Corcoran Jennison today owns and manages more than 24,000 residential units, mostly affordable and mixed-income rentals. Like all of the company’s properties, Harbor Point has rules of behavior: no pets, no repairing or washing cars on site, no consumption of alcoholic beverages in public areas, no loud noises after 11 p.m., and so on. In addition, car access is restricted to residents and guests (while the streets are publicly owned, they are maintained—and patrolled—privately). “We are able to relax some rules as the property matures, and in other properties we make them more strict as the resident population evolves,” says Miles Byrne, who managed Harbor Point for seven years. “There is so much distrust in the early years of any mixed-income community, in large part because we inherit a resident population that has only known the public housing universe, where promises were broken, properties were neglected, and decisions were reached without resident input.”

Corcoran Jennison is strict about enforcement, but Byrne emphasizes that, in the case of subsidized tenants, eviction is a last resort. “Guns and drugs are the third rail, but on everything else, we—the developer and the council—try to make it work. After all, subsidized tenants have many fewer housing options than market tenants.” He emphasizes that managing low-income housing is more demanding than managing simple market housing, and that many municipal housing bureaucracies are bad at it. “They’re not very entrepreneurial,” he says. “And they often develop an adversarial relationship with their tenants.”

Townhouses at Harbor Point.
Brad Vest Townhouses at Harbor Point.
The view from a market rate apartment in the 50 Island View  building in Harbor Point.
Brad Vest The view from a market rate apartment in the 50 Island View building in Harbor Point.

Sound management and tenant control are crucial, but urban design is important, too. The plan for Harbor Point was the work of the late Joan E. Goody of Boston-based Goody, Clancy & Associates. She sympathized with the demands of the public housing occupants. “They wanted to live in a ‘normal’ neighborhood,” she wrote in a 1993 article in Places magazine, “one that didn’t look or work like a project, one that felt safe for walking around and letting their children out to play.”

To achieve normality, the Ville Radieuse plan was converted into a street grid with sidewalks, on-street parking, and no cul-de-sacs. Seventeen of the original buildings were replaced by new five-, six- and seven-story brick apartment blocks oriented to the street; the rest of the structures were renovated and given pitched roofs and bay windows. Among the apartment buildings, Goody placed groups of two- and three-story townhouses—modest, New England–style buildings of painted clapboard with stoops and picket fences. All the ground floor apartments were given their own front doors—a simple feature “that nurtures pride and identity,” as the architecture critic of the Boston Globe, Robert Campbell, wrote in a 1990 article.

Although this sounds a lot like what would later become known as New Urbanism, the first designs for Harbor Point predate Seaside and call for none of the decorative charm of that seminal project; this is New Urbanism on a diet. In any case, Goody, a Harvard-trained modernist, did not consider herself a New Urbanist. “Joan was a humanist rather than a traditionalist,” says David Dixon, FAIA, principal in charge of urban design at Goody Clancy. “She was more interested in how people live today than in how they wanted to live in the past. That’s why she looked to nearby Boston neighborhoods such as Dorchester, rather than to old New England towns.”

Neighborhood children play football behind townhouses in Harbor Point.
Brad Vest Neighborhood children play football behind townhouses in Harbor Point.
The outdoor pool at Harbor point fronts the old harbor.
Brad Vest The outdoor pool at Harbor point fronts the old harbor.

In his 1990 article, Campbell concluded that “Harbor Point will flourish if it begins to grow at its edges and mesh with its surroundings.” The 10 lanes of Interstate 93 are a formidable barrier between the site and the rest of Dorchester, but the immediate surroundings are being filled in, and Harbor Point itself is flourishing. There are two schools and a church across the street, the adjacent University of Massachusetts campus has expanded, and the projected Edward M. Kennedy Institute, next to the JFK Library, is in the works. Corcoran Jennison has built an apartment building, an office building, and a hotel next to the housing development, and although its plans for a new residential community were scotched by the recession—the university acquired the land—a $60 million apartment complex is on the boards for another neighboring site.

On a recent warm and sunny day in June, I walked over to Harbor Point from the nearby MBTA station and discovered a surprising number of people on the street. “Surprising” because a typical planned community of 9-to-5 white-collar workers is usually empty at noon on a weekday. Since many of the subsidized tenants at Harbor Point work at nontraditional jobs—night-shift cleaners, taxi drivers, security guards—they are around during the day. Another result of the mixed-income community is greater heterogeneity. There are mothers with strollers (a third of the subsidized residents are children), and elderly bench-sitters from the seniors’ residence. A large number of the market tenants at Harbor Point are college students, and while there are fewer of them today than when regular classes are in session, they are a presence, too.

Harbor Point is a walkable community: The buildings are close to the sidewalks and the mature trees offer plenty of shade. It’s leafy green, but at 30 units per acre, the impression is urban. Goody, whose sensible, low-key architecture has stood the test of time, oriented the streets so that they terminate in views of either the harbor or the Boston skyline. Along the water’s edge is a public promenade with a spectacular vista of downtown across the bay. The other major landscape feature of Harbor Point is a 1,000-foot-long mall modeled on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay. This kind of mimicry doesn’t always work—many neotraditional developments have “boulevards” weakly defined by single-family houses—but here the apartment buildings, barely visible behind a line of street trees, are exactly the right scale for the long green space.

The base of one of the apartment buildings facing the mall houses a small commercial strip containing a convenience store, dry cleaner, hair salon, daycare center, and Fiskie’s Café, whose tables and chairs spill out onto the sidewalk. I ordered a Buffalo chicken wrap at the café for lunch. At the table next to me, three East Asian kids were having a snack; another table was occupied by a group of Hispanic men.

Fiskie's Cafe in the commercial strip at Harbor Point has outdoor seating for patrons.
Brad Vest Fiskie's Cafe in the commercial strip at Harbor Point has outdoor seating for patrons.
Harbor Point's central tree-lined mall is modeled on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue.
Brad Vest Harbor Point's central tree-lined mall is modeled on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue.

Harbor Point is as ethnically diverse as Boston itself. Although the one-to-two ratio between subsidized and market units remains, the last 25 years have seen changes in the population. The majority of the subsidized residents today are Hispanics, rather than African-Americans as in the past; family size has dropped, leading Corcoran Jennison to convert some of the four- and five-bedroom apartments into smaller units. Less than half of the market tenants are white, and there is a large Asian population. There are also more college students sharing apartments, as well as retirees and young professionals.

“We attract out-of-towners who like coming here because of the racial mix,” Corcoran told me. In a Yelp review, a University of Massachusetts student from the Bay Area who identified herself as Katy H. wrote that she enjoyed her year living in Harbor Point: “Lots of residents were students, but in addition to that, there were families, single adults, elderly couples, you name it—they lived here.” She added, “If you consider yourself to be close-minded or intolerant of different cultures and people—this is NOT the neighborhood for you.”

Most of the Yelp reviewers seemed unaware that many of their neighbors were low-income families. This is not surprising, since the units occupied by subsidized tenants are indistinguishable from the rest, inside and out. But reading between the lines, I sense occasional tensions: complaints about scratched cars, noisy parties, teenagers acting up. This might dismay social activists who imagine mixed-income housing to be some sort of happy melting pot. On the other hand, the market rents that Corcoran Jennison is able to charge (a one-bedroom apartment is currently about $2,400 a month, up from $800 15 years ago) and the satisfaction expressed by most of the Yelp reviewers lays to rest skeptics’ fears that rich and poor can’t live together. At Harbor Point, the two groups share amenities, exercise in the same fitness center, swim in the same pool, shop in the same convenience store, serve as building captains, and deliberate together on the tenants’ council. Given the disparity among different income groups today, a degree of social distance would hardly be surprising. But with American society economically polarized as never before, creating an environment in which rich and poor live amicably side by side is no mean accomplishment.

So, what did it take to make Harbor Point a success? A visionary and committed developer + a responsive architect + the active participation of low-income residents + an experienced property management team. Not a simple formula. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill: It could be said that Harbor Point is the least likely model for public housing, except for all the others that have been tried.

A pair of tennis courts take up one block of the tree-lined mall at Harbor Point.
Brad Vest A pair of tennis courts take up one block of the tree-lined mall at Harbor Point.
John Cole, a University of Massachusetts student, mans the Harbor Point Market, one of the businesses located in the community’s small commercial strip.
Brad Vest John Cole, a University of Massachusetts student, mans the Harbor Point Market, one of the businesses located in the community’s small commercial strip.