A new development team has stepped forward with plans to renovate the long-vacant Ropewalk building in the Charlestown Navy Yard, hoping to turn it into apartments with a museum mural located the length of the building.
The group, led by Joe Timilty of Timilty Development, Stephen Sousa of Sousa Design Architects and John French of Neshamkin French Architects, presented their plans Wednesday evening before the Charlestown Neighborhood Council and a room packed with Navy Yard residents. They are seeking tentative designation as developer of the building, which requires Boston Redevelopment Authority approval, and wanted community input on the proposal.
If the team were able to secure that designation, it would allow them to continue to develop a plan, which would require large project, or Article 80, review before the BRA.
“That’s the only thing we’re asking for … a license to put together a plan which continually changes based on your [the community’s] input,” Timilty said at the start of his presentation.
The Ropewalk, which was built in the late 1830s as a navy rope factory and closed in the early 1970s, is about 400 feet long, located at the edge of the Navy Yard, running alongside Chelsea Street. It is part of a cluster of buildings that were used in the rope-making process.
The Charlestown Ropewalk is one of only three remaining rope factories in the world and is unique even among those few buildings, as Charlestown resident Judy McDonough, who has served as director of the Massachusetts Historical Commission and director of the Boston Landmarks Commission, pointed out at Wednesday’s meeting.
French estimated it would cost $6 million just to get the building shored up enough to begin renovations. Among other issues, parts of the building remain charred following a nine-alarm fire in 2002.
Timilty said his team had considered several designs before picking one they felt best preserved the building’s original look while allowing for practical use.
The design features a single-loaded corridor connecting a series of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments for a total of 68 units. This design would mean about 22 cuts for new doorways (as opposed to the original design’s 58 cuts)—one of the factors considered by the historical agencies that would be reviewing the plans.
Along the length of the corridor would be a mural showing the building’s history, which could be viewed through windows by people walking a path alongside the building. The corridor, which would be about 6 feet wide, could also exhibit small pieces of machinery and other items from the rope factory’s original use, Timilty said. The mural would be the main museum aspect—a requirement for any renovations of the building—but the developers have also considered setting up a small museum space at one end of the building, likely near other historical sites in the Navy Yard.
Timilty said he would be looking to include one parking space per unit for the project, although that parking is currently not available in the Navy Yard. A large part of the conversation Wednesday was about turning nearby Building 108 into a parking garage or finding other parking solutions before moving forward with any new development, including the Ropewalk project.
Tied in with that was a concern about having adequate areas for dropping off groceries, moving trucks and other needs.
Another concern echoed by several people was that Timilty wanted to do the units as rentals rather than owner-occupied condominiums.
CNC member Barbara Babin lives in the Navy Yard and said she did not want to see more rentals. She said she wanted to see people “buying and investing in the community.”
“People want to buy in the Navy Yard but there’s nothing for sale,” Babin said.
Timilty said he thought the Ropewalk was more marketable as rental units.
“I think there’s plenty of room and plenty of need for rental properties in the city of Boston and the community of Charlestown,” he said. “I don’t want to do condos.”
Another reason Timilty preferred to do rentals was that he is seeking historic tax credits for the project, and certain requirements ask that the developer retain ownership of the building for at least five years after completion.
Several people said that, however it is done, Timilty should have to provide more than one parking space per unit, particularly for a rental building. With rates expected to be high, the two- and three-bedroom units might attract roommates rather than families, who are sure to have more than one vehicle.
Others said they would prefer to see some non-residential uses in the building, such as a store, café or restaurant. One Navy Yard resident suggested the Ropewalk Building could become a retail hub like Faneuil Hall in the downtown.
David Carlson, senior architect for urban design for the BRA, said that several developers over the years had proposed ideas for the building, but none had come to fruition—many for financial reasons. Previous ideas ranged from residential to fish farming to a labyrinth.
About 10 years ago, the BRA issued the last request for proposals for the Ropewalk Building—with no results, said Heather Campisano, the BRA’s deputy director for development review. Since then, the BRA has had an “open door policy,” meeting with potential developers as ideas arise “to see what we could do to bring this building back to life.”
The CNC did not take a vote at the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, and members directed Campisano to return to the BRA board requesting a study of the parking issue, and possible development of Building 108 into a garage, before proceeding with development of the Ropewalk.