In Dorchester's Lower Mills, a continued ascent speeds up

Among the signs of revival: the Schoolhouse at Lower Mills condos on River Street. Among the signs of revival: the Schoolhouse at Lower Mills condos on River Street. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Meghan Irons
Globe Staff / October 5, 2008
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Driving through Lower Mills, you can't miss the signs:

"Now leasing," reads one on River Street.

"First class office building for lease," reads another nearby.

Residents and business owners say the announcements are a sign of the times, as this pocket of the city - which some call Dorchester's "little surprise" - is booming.

On River Street alone, the evidence is there: New housing now fills a former vacant lot. Right next to it are the sparkling new condos called Schoolhouse at Lower Mills, occupying the old Knights of Columbus hall site. Across the street are more apartments units. And next door to Schoolhouse sits Shaw's supermarket, which opened more than five years ago.

On Washington Street, next to Spukies 'n Pizza, workers are putting the finishing touches on the building where a Lil Peach convenience store once stood.

The owner plans to open a convenience store there on Oct. 15 called Metamorphosis Cafe that will sell organic food and fine wine.

"I wanted to do something different," said Lefteris Retzos, who also co-owns Spukies. "The neighborhood needs it."

In Pierce Square, the neighborhood center, new businesses have moved in, and plans are in the works to transform the old Donovan's Village Tavern on Dorchester Avenue into a more upscale restaurant, residents say.

Just on the Boston side of the Neponset River on Adams Street, work is wrapping up, city officials say, on the Walter Baker Lofts, near a building converted to artists' lofts not that long ago.

Businesses new to the area say Lower Mills is a prime location, sitting close to Milton Village, its ritzier neighbor.

"This neighborhood is enjoying a renaissance," said Tom Fiske, owner of T. Benjamin Fiske Custom Framing & Fine Art, which he moved to Lower Mills a few months ago after eight years in Milton. "Since I've been here, my business has doubled."

Merchants, a strong and vocal presence shaping the community, have gotten organized, according to Anthony Paciulli, head of the Lower Mills Merchants Association.

The group revived last year after an eight-year hiatus and its membership grew from six last year to 50 today, he said.

Community leaders say businesses are drawn to Lower Mills because of the density of new housing - more than 150 new condo or apartment units in all, according to Boston Redevelopment Authority officials.

And though Paciulli said property values in Lower Mills are about the same as much of the rest of Dorchester, residents like having all the amenities of the city - easy T access downtown and cool places nearby to shop and eat, for instance - while feeling like they are in a suburban town.

"You can walk out of your house and not need your vehicle," said Paciulli, president of the Meetinghouse Bank in Lower Mills. "That can't be said in too many communities."

With brick sidewalks, pristine streets, and shepherd lighting, Lower Mills looks more like a part of Milton Village than the rest of Dorchester, where some other neighborhood centers struggle with crime and crowding. By contrast, Lower Mills boasts a gourmet coffee shop, antique stores, a boutique, and restaurants. Multifamily housing is scarce. The neighborhood has plenty of green space and the historic Baker Chocolate Factory, which has been converted into apartments.

On warm days, people nosh on pastries and sip coffee alfresco, and families stop in at the Ice Creamsmith for vanilla ice cream mixed with M&M'S.

Businesses and residents say they have worked hard to keep the character of the community.

"There were a lot of people who have been here for a long time and were eager to see it grow and were doing the best they can to see that happen," said Jeff Chatlos, co-owner of Flatblack Coffee Co.

Lower Mills's business and historical center rises just beyond the troubled Caritas Carney Hospital on Dorchester Avenue and minutes from Mattapan Square. As you drive through it, you might easily think you are in Milton, which lies over the George Roper bridge.

One website hails Lower Mills as "the best of suburban and urban living." Another calls it "not exactly Milton."

"I can't think of an area," said Richard O'Mara, who owns Cedar Grove Gardens and is vice president of the Lower Mills Civic Association, "that quite has a mix like this one does."

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