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Yvonne Abraham

Little steps, big results

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / August 16, 2009

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There’s a lot of dead space in Boston right now - giant holes all over the city, as developers wait for financing to thaw. But you’d never know that if you dropped by the Brewery complex, near the Stony Brook T in Jamaica Plain.

On a recent Friday, it thrummed with life. At Ula Café, cheery servers dispensed sweet potato sandwiches and tortilla soup so good you could climb into it. Assorted alterna-types sat at the tables, staring at their laptops, chewing away to the sounds of The Beta Band.

Treadmills whirred and weight machines clanked at Mike’s gym. At Kenyon Woodworking, carpenters dragged whinnying saws through lumber. Rehab specialists at Bay Cove Human Services sat in a meeting room talking quietly. Three happy travelers from Tucson arrived for a tour of the Sam Adams brewery. Outside, two dozen helmeted youths in the Earn-a-Bike program at the nonprofit Bikes Not Bombs tossed water balloons, squealing with delight. Then they took off on a group ride to the Arboretum.

Little kids flitted around big ones in a recital at Tony Williams Dance Center, transforming from black-clad caterpillars into colorful butterflies.

“As a kid, I used to live around here,’’ said Williams, the first African-American principal at the Boston Ballet. “I remember the smell of the hops. At the time, I could never have dreamed I’d end up here.’’

Who could?

This used to be dead space, too. The old Haffenreffer Brewery closed in 1965. Its sprawling, mostly-vacant buildings promptly fell apart, their windows broken, their ceilings crumbling, their cavernous spaces trash-strewn. Its 250 employees were replaced by cats, pigeons, towering weeds, and graffiti. It didn’t help that nearby houses were razed to make way for a highway that, thanks to neighborhood opposition (and possibly divine intervention), never happened.

In 1977, folks at the new Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation had the idea to buy the 16 Haffenreffer buildings and turn them into a place where local businesses could make homes. The community group bought the 150,000-square-foot brewery for $2 a square foot in 1983. Paying peanuts didn’t make them look any less crazy at the time.

They lucked out when Boston Beer Co., brewer of Sam Adams, moved in a couple of years later. Slowly, other light-manufacturing operations followed. After the real estate boom made rents too expensive on quichey Centre Street, other service businesses moved in, too, drawing the public.

Now it is home to architects, cleaners, carpenters, chefs. Kids flock here for dance camps, music lessons, art classes. The gym opens at 5:30 a.m. and the wildly popular restaurant Bella Luna closes at 1 a.m. It’s all very modern, a reflection of its gentrified but still diverse neighborhood. But it’s also mom-and-pop old-fashioned - the beating heart of a neighborhood.

Nothing at the Brewery has happened quickly: It took three decades to bring it back, one business at a time.

By the end of this year, the Brewery will cross a remarkable threshold: Every inch will be rented, and it will employ more people than Haffenreffer did in its heyday. And this despite that fact that the economy is in ruins.

Anywhere else, you would need a big fat corporate tenant to anchor a facility like this. JP doesn’t do corporate; it’s crazy loyal to local business, passionate about community. Twelve-hundred people showed up for the relocation parade when Bella Luna moved into the brewery in March, after 15 years on Centre Street.

When we think about development in Boston, we tend to think in terms of multimillion-dollar mega-projects, condo towers, big-name developers.

Maybe we should think more like JP.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is abraham@globe.com.