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This story ran in the Boston Herald on 7/6/2002.
© Copyright 2002 The Boston Herald

Commonwealth Flats takes off:
Development of S. Boston waterfront area sparks debate

by Paul Restuccia

While the debate over the Fan Pier has attracted a lot of public attention and criticism, plans for a larger but less well-known area in the South Boston waterfront are going forward that will have an equally major impact in the area.

Commonwealth Flats, 30 acres of Massport-owned land that extends from the World Trade Center back to Summer Street across from the new convention center and east to the Haul Road at the edge of the Marine Industrial Park, is a test case for balancing the desire to develop South Boston waterfront to its highest possible use and the needs and desires of the adjacent port industrial area, harbor interests and neighborhood groups.

The area immediately surrounding the World Trade Center has long been eyed for development but the first buildings did not get under way until the early 1990s when Fidelity got permitted for three parcels for the Seaport Hotel and two office buildings, now known as World Trade Center East and West.

The hotel and east office building are now occupied with the west building coming on line in 2002, having already signed leases with downtown law firms for large chunks of space. And Fidelity holds an option on Parcel 1-A, where it is planning the World Trade Center South office building.

With the opening of the Ted Williams tunnel and with two Silver Line Transitway stops in the flats scheduled to begin operation in 2003, the surrounding area is drawing significant attention from developers.

``Our purpose in developing this area is to have a long-term revenue stream to support the high cost of running a port,'' says Lowell Richards, Massport's director of development. ``Seaports don't make money, they lose money. Conley Terminal isn't profitable. It's incredibly expensive even to maintain seawalls, never mind the capital costs of improving the cruise ship terminal.''

But even as new developments go forward opponents say that the eastern part of the Commonwealth Flats plan intrudes into what has long been considered the working area of the port, the array of seafood processing centers and warehouses that serve the fishing industry and storage for containers unloaded at the nearby Conley Terminal.

``Massport's charter is to fulfill the needs of the port and airport, not to be a real estate developer maximizing revenue from its land,'' says Jon Seward of the Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design. ``We're in danger of shortchanging the future. Boston was founded on its port and will need the port again.''

The part of the plan that has generated the most debate has been extending development to parcels east of D Street, long considered the boundary between present and future commercial uses and the port.

Massport hired Cambridge's Chan, Krieger & Associates in 1998 to come up with a master plan for the area.

``We listened to arguments against going east of D Street, but felt that the entrance of the Ted Williams Tunnel was a more natural boundary between the two uses,'' says Alex Krieger, a well-regarded planner who also teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. ``That way D Street could be in the middle of something rather than on the edge.''

Krieger's team redesigned the end of D Street into a delta, with a 1.2-acre park and recommended building on seven parcels east of D Street. Developments are now under way on four of these parcels, which will front on the proposed park, envisioned as an open public space that will draw users from all over South Boston.

Several weeks ago the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved a 14-story, 470,000-square-foot building on Parcel F-1 adjacent to the entrance of the Ted Williams Tunnel that will become the U.S. headquarters of Manulife Financial. The Toronto-based insurer plans to break ground this summer and be ready for occupancy by October 2003, the 100th anniversary of its operations in the U.S. The building will not only allow consolidation of its 700 employees in the Boston area, but also allow for expansion up to 1,500 workers. Because of the soil conditions on Parcel F-1, the project will only have 121 parking spaces underground and Manulife expects many employees to take the new Transitway to work to a stop adjacent to its site.

``We have a real need for space because we're growing fast in Boston,'' says James D. Gallagher, vice president and chief legal officer of government affairs at Manulife. ``And we're able to develop and finance this ourselves, which has made an accelerated timetable possible.''

The curved-front glass building, being designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, will be what Gallagher calls ``a glass thermos,'' a double-skin wall that will improve energy efficiency and incorporate photovoltaic panels. It will also feature an interior atrium of grass and trees that will extend from the fourth through the 12th floors and face out on the front and back of the building.

And next door, a long-pending hotel and residential project called the Waterfront Hotel and Residences is in the final stages of the permitting process and scheduled to begin construction by the end of the year. This project, originally a hotel and 80 units of residential on one parcel, has grown to three parcels with a hotel and 450 apartments and is being designed by Cambridge's Arrowstreet Inc. The 18-story hotel with 450 rooms does not have an operator as of yet, but will be a four-star hotel catering to corporate and leisure travelers and have 10,000 square feet of ballroom space and 15,000 square feet of meeting space. An underground garage to be built under all three parcels will provide 675 parking spaces.

The two apartment buildings, which will be market rate and range from one bedroom with dens up to three bedrooms, will front on Northern Avenue. The tower on Parcel G will have 150 units, with the other 300 on Parcel J that will step up to 20 stories. The project will provide a required affordable housing component that has yet to be worked out with the city as to whether it will be on or off site.

``We added more residential for two reasons,'' says developer Joe Fallon, managing partner of South Boston Waterfront Development LLC. ``First, there was a clear need to increase housing in this area, and, secondly, lenders felt that a hotel wouldn't work well alone in this location, that the street life around it needed a neighborhood feel.''

Fallon is partnering with local developer Corcoran Jennison and has secured major funding from Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers, which invests in projects for Mass. Mutual and the AFL-CIO.

``Fidelity has a strong presence here and we'll be recruiting tenants for the apartments from the 25- to 40-year-olds who work for them, from Thomson Financial and the firms in the Trade Center offices,'' Fallon says.

Both Fallon's development and Manulife will front on the new South Boston Waterfront Park, which will be programmed by Massport and will sponsor community events for all over South Boston.

Harbor interests and neighborhood groups have been critical of putting housing on truck routes like Northern Avenue, fearing that tenants paying $2,000-$2,500 a month would quickly tire of the truck noise and band together to ban truck activity from Northern Avenue.

``We support truck traffic on Northern Ave.,'' says Jon Seward. ``This is not a playground for the rich and we can't be sanitizing the area for someone's idea of luxury.''

The Boston Harbor Association moved to protect maritime interests by having the housing in the Fallon project designated for rental only with leases no longer than two years. Tenants will also sign a covenant that recognizes Northern Avenue. as an industrial corridor.

``And if Massport is going to put housing there, then where are you going to create the kind of open space where people can play ball, throw a Frisbee or roller blade,'' argues Vivien Li, executive director of the TBHA. ``The problem is that every developer in Comm. Flats and the whole South Boston waterfront area are just creating blobs of green space for their own uses.

``Massport, as a major public agency, has missed the opportunity to create a significant park down there, something comparable to the 6 1/2-acre Piers Park on the East Boston waterfront.''

TBHA proposed putting just such a large park on parcels K-1 and K-2, adjacent to the Haul Road, but Massport development officials nixed that idea and will probably put offices on these so-called buffer parcels across from truck cargo bays and Stavis Seafood. Housing on these parcels was recently ruled out by Massport head Virginia Buckingham, with talk of internal wrangling within Massport between the agency's maritime division and the development office over land use.

On Parcel E, across Northern Ave. from the Fallon project, the Doulos family, owners of Jimmy's Harborside Restaurant, are planning to build a new home for their well-know fish eatery as 2-story facility on the east end of the site. They will also have development rights to the west end of the parcel adjacent to the Fish Pier to develop another presumably non-seafood restaurant. Plans call for a public walkway to the waterfront in between the two buildings.

The western half of the Commonwealth Flats plan has generated less controversy as it seeks to tie together land adjacent to the new convention center to Northern Ave. Here Krieger envisions a rebuilt Viaduct Street which will run from Summer Street connecting with the World Trade Center T stop now under construction on Congress Street, and also tying into the projected World Trade Center South building, the yet to be developed C parcels and the Seaport Hotel, ending at the top level of the World Trade Center. Plans call for a covered walkway for the entire length of the street to provide convention goers with a clear path down to the waterfront on Northern Ave.

The three C parcels which are on Congress Street behind the Seaport Hotel and on air-rights over the I-90 extension, could become a destination quality retail/entertainment center which would serve the convention center delegates, as well as those working and living in Commonwealth Flats. Although it could not support a large mall, which would require a regional drawing power, it could feature the kind of retail stores found in places like the Prudential Center arcade and also include office and housing. According to Richards the total number of residential units on Massport-owned land will be anywhere from 800 to 1,000 by the time it is built out.

``SAND wants a high residential component in the area,`` Seward adds. ``People who live in the district can walk to work in the district and those who work outside can easily reverse commute.``

A 1,500-car air-rights garage to be built near the new convention center has already been permitted, and the D parcels along Summer Street could support future hotels for the convention center in what is decidedly a tough market for hotel financing.

``The combination of park, retail, residential office and hotel is a rich mix and Commonwealth Flats has the potential of becoming an interesting area, a stew of traditional maritime activity and new uses,'' Krieger says. ``Within three years, once the new hotel, apartments and park are built, this will feel like a desirable area and should attract other developers. The area around the D Street park will have life.`

But there's no doubt that the character of the area will change when the low-slung building across from Jimmy's Harborside that now houses a variety of restaurants, a grocery store and offices, is demolished later this year for the Fallon project. This part of Northern Ave. has long been a restaurant row that has drawn a diverse group of patrons from the nearby fish processing plants, construction workers and tourists.

But Massport and developer Fallon say they have a strong commitment to maintaining the restaurant ambiance in the area. Fallon says that a number of restaurateurs who will be displaced have expressed interest in returning to the ground-floor retail space of the new apartment buildings.

``Anytime you redevelop an area, you risk making it cleansed,'' Krieger acknowledges. ``And when it looks prettier and gets more expensive, it could well lose the charm it has today. ''

This story ran in the Boston Herald on 7/6/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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