Mattapan Square's latest landmark: Sparkling new health center

DrDr. Azzie Young: Mattapan Community Health Center's longtime leader shown on the fourth floor balcony on the new facility in Mattapan Sq. Photo by Bill ForryDr. Azzie Young: Mattapan Community Health Center's longtime leader shown on the fourth floor balcony on the new facility in Mattapan Sq. Photo by Bill Forry. Azzie Young is one happy community health center president.

She can see for miles from her corner suite on a third floor perch atop 1575 Blue Hill Avenue. It’s a whole new perspective on the neighborhood from up here— and it’s one she’ll share with all of her employees, who can now enjoy lunch or morning coffee on the adjacent outdoor patio that on a clear day like today offers sweeping views of the Blue Hills, the steeples of Mattapan and, with a peek over the side, the bustling square below.

It’s a view —and a vision — that’s been a long time in the making.

“This is where we were supposed to be,” Dr. Young said in an interview with the Reporter on Tuesday, her first in the new building since she and her staff moved in two weeks ago. “Too many things had to happen for this to come about— and they all did.”

The four story, $32 million stone, steel and glass facility — which houses the health center over the top three floors with retail space on the street level— has already come to define the Mattapan Square of the future. A Citizens Bank branch opened on the ground level of the building in July and a CVS store— the first pharmacy in the square in recent years— will open its doors next month.

The facility has given the health center, long bursting at the seams at its old, squat storefront space further up the avenue, a new pulse of energy. The health center has doubled its capacity to serve patients in both its medical and dental wings. And Dr. Young has begun hiring new doctors and dentists— with an eye towards a burgeoning patient base that she’s confident will flock to the building from Mattapan and beyond.

Downstairs, in a spacious room dotted with kids and moms waiting for a dentist chair, the patients are buzzing about the new look. Several hover near the floor to ceiling windows, peering out a Mattapan Square they’ve seen every day, but never from this vantage point.

“It’s a whole new way of seeing the square,” said one man as he strolled through the waiting room.

Like Dr. Young’s private office — which has 11 large windows that face south and east — the dominant design element of the building is bright and open. Architects from the firm Steffian Bradley— following the lead of the health center’s staff and patients, who suffered in windowless, cramped quarters for decades at their old building— made sure that natural light pours in from all directions.

The walls are painted in bright, bold oranges and tans— a tip of the cap, Dr. Young says, to the center’s heavily Caribbean demographic, many of them Haitian. The terraced roofs visible through the lobby windows of the higher floors are covered in grass and plantings, part of a concerted effort to adhere to a silver LEED certifification.

Funding for the new Mattapan health center came from a variety of sources, including a pivotal seed grant from Boston Medical Center, a longtime supporter of MCHC, which pitched in $1 million to help secure and prepare the site itself. The center raised $12 million through philanthropies over the last decade, including the Richard and Susan Smith Family Fund, Mass General Hospital, Partners Health Care and Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

But it was the Obama administration— and its pledge of $11.55 million through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (frequently dubbed “the stimulus”) that put Dr. Young’s efforts over the top.

“We write the best grant we’ve ever written,” Dr. Young said. “We had help from all of our elected officials, the governor, the mayor and our Congressional delegation. And Sen. Kennedy’s staff wrote the best letter of all. It was a time when we really needed support and it came.”

When she got the call that the money would come through in the first round of stimulus funding, Dr. Young says she began a dizzying round of phone calls to key supporters featuring her “screaming into their ears, ‘We got it!!’”

The exuberance was fueled in large part by relief at what could have gone wrong. Dr. Young and her board had long planned to simply build a new structure on the site of their longtime home near the corner of Blue Hill and Tennis Road. In order to build there, Young and her team needed to find temporary space to rent when construction commenced.

Instead, they discovered that the parcels that they once considered renting were for sale. Dr. Young consulted with her team, including her predecessor as MCHC president, Gregory Bulger.
Dr. Young recalls, “He said, ‘Get it! That’s where we wanted to go back in 1980!”

The health center assembled eight parcels of land from five different owners— including an old service station and a building that until recently housed the Citizens Bank branch and other office space— in a complex land deal. Once financing was arranged, including the stimulus funds and a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up the 1.6 acre site, construction began in 2010. Dr. Young says that the job led to 584 construction jobs, the bulk of them through general contractor Suffolk Construction, which exceeded hiring thresholds for women and minority workers on the project.

There are some final touches that remain unfinished this week. An art installation planned for the two-story lobby — complete with a dedicated community room— that greets pedestrians from Blue Hill Ave. is not yet in place. An adjacent parking lot for patients and retail customers is still being built on the former Black Pages property next door. The center— and its tenants, CVS and Citizens Bank— will share a total of 70 spaces. Staff from the center are using a satellite parking lot a block away that has been leased for their exclusive use.

Dr. Young is already anticipating the possibility of adding one or even two more stories to the building in the next three to five years, depending on demand. The design of the building will allow for such a build-out if necessary.

First things first, however: She and her staff are busy preparing for a grand opening celebrtation— featuring Gov. Deval Patrick, Mayor Menino and other dignitaries on Monday, Sept. 10. It will be a busy weekend for the center, which will also stage its 16th annual Health Care Revival on Sat., Sept. 8 on the front lawn of the Foley building, 249 River Street. The event features health and fitness information, free screenings (including prostate exams for men 39 and older) and activities for teens and kids. The event will run from 9:30-3:30 p.m.

On top of it all, Dr. Young is diligently evaluating what works and what needs to be tweaked in the new building. So far, she says, so good.

“I really think the patient flow works really well,” she says. “And seeing those smiles on the faces of our staff— in the hallways and out here on this outdoor patio, using it for their lunch break. It’s really making a difference in how we all feel, the patients, our staff. It warms my heart, because I feel like we’ve achieved what we wanted all these years.

“We always said that the building we were in shouldn’t define us. That we are much more than a building. But this building is a symbol of what we are trying to be and what we want for this community that we care for so much.”

The old site of the MCHC campus on Blue Hill Ave. is now for sal, according to Dr. Young.