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Boston plans, with US aid, to rescue failed housing development

Turning eyesores into assets is nothing new to this old, history-encrusted city that has slowly been shedding layers of grime over the past few decades. But Boston officials are particularly happy over the prospect of rescuing the Columbia Point public housing project from the crime, vagrancy, and general poor management that has turned it into an urban derelict. The mass of hulking, red-brick buildings shares Columbia Point, a peninsula jutting into Dorchester Bay, with the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts.

Local leaders hope legislation signed Jan. 2 by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis will help Columbia Point shed its high-crime record and 65 percent vacancy rate to become a picturesque, $136 million waterfront development that people will want to live in. The new state law makes possible the transfer of Columbia Point from public ownership to a consortium of private developers led by Corcoran, Mullin & Jennison Inc. of Quincy, Mass.

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This is in line with Reagan administration policies calling for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to no longer build massive public housing projects and to seek the turnover of public housing units to the private sector.

Last September HUD withheld approval of a $15 million federal Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) to Boston for Columbia Point because developers could not guarantee subsidized housing to 400 low-income tenants in the proposed complex. The Boston request has been resubmitted and is being considered, in competition with applications from elsewhere in the United States, for the Jan. 31 awarding of UDAG funds.

The new state legislation permits the Boston Housing Authority to use federal funds to subsidize the 400 housing units for low-income tenants of the new Columbia Point. Through a complicated legal procedure, an annual $3.3 million HUD grant goes to the BHA to cover the subsidies, and HUD gains control over three state-developed projects in exchange for state control over Columbia Point. Under a federal law, low-income tenants pay 30 percent of their income for rent and the subsidy covers the difference between that sum and the market price rental.

The Columbia Point project apparently will recieve aid from two other sources. The Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency has tentative approval to lend the developers $95 million for construction and mortgage. Final approval is expected from the state legislature. And HUD has OK'd an $8.7 million Urban Initiatives grant to Boston for the demolition of 18 buildings.

``Turning Columbia Point into a thriving, viable community with quality housing for all is a goal we have long sought,'' says Governor Dukakis. ``With this legislation we stand a much better chance of having the UDAG funding approved.''

But John F. Mathews, a Republican Party leader in Newton, Mass., who is perhaps the project's severest critic, advises ``cautious examination'' of all current and potential low-income tenants before approving subsidies for them. ``I'm not against housing for the poor,'' he said in an interview, ``but I am against fear, mugging, and criminal activity that have typified life at Columbia Point. Management should enforce the rules that would mean the ouster of disorderly and criminally inclined tenants.''

The Columbia Point housing project will be converted from an original 1,504 units of low-income housing to 1,400 units of mixed-occupancy units, including condominiums, town houses, and apartments.

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Occupants of land on Columbia Point besides the housing project, the Kennedy Library, and UMass-Boston include a Bank of Boston building, and a refurbished Bay State Mall that includes the Bayside Convention and Exhibition Center. A new structure to house the Massachusetts Archives is under construction on the peninsula.

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