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Jamaica Plain

Old buildings brewing with activity

Local firms flourish at Haffenreffer site

As owners of an artsy Jamaica Plain café, Kate Bancroft and Korinn Koslofsky weren't expecting the beer crowd.

"We've been getting floods of customers," Bancroft says of the suburbanites and tourists who flock to the nearby Samuel Adams brewery for tours on weekends, then line up around the corner at Ula Café - some laden with souvenirs, some a little tipsy - to order from a menu that includes curried tofu salad.

The influx is only one unexpected benefit of opening a café at the Brewery, a 5-acre complex in Jamaica Plain that has taken the phrase "mixed-use development" to new levels. In addition to Samuel Adams, the site is home to a woodworking shop and a pretzel factory among the roughly 50 businesses that employ nearly 260 people.

The opening of Ula Café represents the final stage of a plan hatched nearly 30 years ago by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation. The idea was to transform the former Haffenreffer Brewery, built in the 1870s, from a warren of overgrown, decaying buildings into an incubator for local enterprise and industry.

While the neighborhood group had succeeded in bringing artisans and small factories into the complex, until a few years ago roughly one-third of the 130,000-square-foot space remained boarded up.

With the recent rehab of the final portion, the Brewery has thrown its doors open to the public, with a new main entrance and parking lot helping to bring in a new generation of service-oriented enterprises focused on health, art, and, of course, food.

In addition to Ula, newcomers include Mike's Fitness JP; the Tony Williams Dance Center; the nonprofit Bikes not Bombs, which puts on bike repair workshops and trips for area youths; and the Children's Music Center, where lessons are given in a former brewery grain hopper.

Odd as it may sound, the Brewery is steadily becoming a place for the whole family. The development corporation is now in talks to develop the last empty space into a 12,000-square-foot, three-story children's educational playground and restaurant called Pandamonium (its mascot is a Panda).

How in an era of big-box chain stores and globalization did the Jamaica Plain organization manage to create this haven for local enterprise? Richard Thal, the group's executive director, credits in large part the steadfast vision of the organization's founders, but he also attributes its transformation to the neighborhood itself.

"There's a lot of energy and originality in JP, so it's not a coincidence that a lot of the groups here are involved in advocacy, education, and the arts," Thal said during a recent tour of the complex. "There's a sense of community and camaraderie."

But many of these aspiring entrepreneurs would never have had a chance if the development corporation wasn't willing to take a chance on them.

Take Omar Argote, who opened Mike's Fitness JP last spring. Although securing a tenant for the gym was the financial linchpin for the rehabbed entrance plaza, and although the corporation had been approached by franchise clubs, it decided to go with this Bolivian immigrants' son who grew up in the neighborhood.

"Argote had managed a gym in the South End, but he had no experience as a business owner," says Andy Waxman, the corporation's commercial development project manager. "It was a risky endeavor, one that other property owners probably wouldn't have done, but we gave him financing."

The nonprofit Jamaica Plain Development Corporation, founded in 1978 has long-established programs in affordable housing, community healthcare, small-business assistance, and job-training programs. It is one of hundreds of community development corporations, known as CDCs, throughout the country, many of them set up in the 1970s.

While the CDC movement has waned elsewhere, the Jamaica Plain organization, with a 40-member staff, continues to exert a major influence on the community, especially in affordable housing. But in many ways, the Brewery, which the group bought in 1983 for $350,000, is its crowning achievement.

Waxman notes that the majority of the Brewery's for-profit businesses are minority-owned, including the dance studio founded by Tony Williams, who grew up in the Bromley-Heath public housing complex.

The Brewery has received awards from the federal Office of Community Services and praise from state and city officials. State and federal tax credits also helped spur the final phase of its development.

"JPNDC has done a great job," says Jill Griffin, the assistant director of economic initiatives for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, whose Back Streets program is aimed at preserving and promoting industrial and commercial enterprise in the city. The program is providing financial assistance to two Brewery businesses.

"Naturally, it raises the question, 'Why is there not more of this?' " Griffin says. "And the answer in large part is that this was taken on by a CDC and not a private developer."

The difference can be seen dramatically in Mission Hill and JP, where more than 20 beer-making operations were clustered in the late 1800s. Three of the last remaining brewery buildings are being converted into high-end condos, even though they are in an area zoned for industrial use. Citing the changing character of the neighborhood, the Zoning Board of Appeal allowed the residential conversion, a move strongly backed by the BRA.

The city has focused its efforts on promoting large-scale business clusters, such as the Marine Industrial Park in South Boston and the Boston/Dedham Commerce Park. The centers may lack charm, but as Griffin says, they are not in "someone's backyard."

For all the praise the Brewery has received as a bastion for neighborhood industry, the new generation of businesses face challenges, not least of which is drawing customers to an area long considered the wrong side of the Orange Line tracks.

On several occasions, Bancroft says, she has had to reassure callers who wanted to know one thing before venturing to the Ula Café from the suburbs: "Is it safe?"

Bancroft and the prospective owners of Pandamonium, the children's museum and restaurant, are hoping that their establishments can generate their own gravity. At Ula, which opened in June, there are plans for extending the operating hours and having live music and movie nights.

But judging by the growing numbers of patrons ensconced behind laptops and gathered at outdoor tables on the weekends, it appears the café has already built up a clientele.

Bill Baga, a teacher who moved to the neighborhood four years ago, joined the gym shortly after it opened, and on a recent Sunday was busy working on lesson plans. "It's exciting to see a lot of new faces," he said. "The whole area seems to be lot more alive."

And while the Brewery may be off the beaten track, its businesses are buoyed by emerging economic relationships and a sense of solidarity. Ula, for example, may use its space to market other businesses in exchange for services, such as gym memberships, for its employees. The café has already been getting its tofu from 21st Century Foods, one of the first tenants in the complex.

Bancroft says she is optimistic that business will continue to pick up even as the crowds from the Samuel Adams tours begin to taper off. "Dance classes should pick up steam in the fall," she said, "so we expect to definitely get a burst of business around here."

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