Neighborhood development in Boston is a contact sport, and usually not a productive one. Everyone gets in the ring and fights for their own interests, while the actual project — a new Boston Garden, the South Boston waterfront, Crosstown, whatever — goes unfulfilled for decades.
So how can it be that everyone seems ready to move forward on the transformation of the area surrounding Fenway Park?
It appears genuinely likely that five years from now, thousands of Longwood Medical Area professionals will live in spanking new high-rise condominium and apartment buildings in the Fenway neighborhood. Pedestrian-friendly sidewalks will be lined with new stores and entertainment venues. The commuter rail’s Yawkey Station will emerge as a major hub of the city, as will a rejuvenated and cleaned-up Green Line D Branch stop at Fenway. The Mass Pike chasm will no longer sever the college-centric world around Kenmore Square from Lansdowne Street, Fenway Park, and beyond.
Although it sometimes may appear as such, it would be a mistake to view this new neighborhood — an "urban village," as planners call it — as simply a Red Sox land grab. That would ignore several years of planning by community groups and Mayor Tom Menino’s administration, as well as the immense influence of Boston University on one side and the Longwood mini-city of medicine on the other. It would also underestimate the work of developers John Rosenthal, president of Meredith Management Group, who will build a huge complex called One Kenmore over the Mass Pike; and Steve Samuels, president of Samuels & Associates, who will build several high-rise residential buildings on upper Boylston Street in partnership with Boylston Properties.
But truth be told, the Sox’ new owners have gained and exercised a lot of clout in dictating changes to their surroundings, and can often start or stop projects, and make politicians jump on command. After decades in local hands, the team has been controlled since 2002 by people from far-flung lands: futures trader John Henry in Florida; television executive Tom Werner in Los Angeles; Yale-educated lawyer and baseball executive Larry Lucchino, who relocated to Boston from San Diego; and the minority-shareholder New York Times Company.
But they sure think they know what’s best for both the city and the state — particularly when it comes to the neighborhoods surrounding their headquarters, a/k/a Fenway Park. City agencies, real-estate developers, community groups, and business associations have worked for years on plans to transform West Fenway, even as the previous Sox owners considered moving the team out of the neighborhood. Now that the new ownership has decided to stay, they are making crystal-clear that they want to have the final say on what happens, and what doesn’t.
After careful calculation, the new owners have decided that they can make Fenway Park profitable — if. If they add 3600 more seats. If they expand concessions — even more-so than they’ve already done by co-opting Yawkey Way — and other sources of revenue. And if the neighborhood around them becomes a more popular destination and thus a more profitable place to be. (Disclosure: Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich owns the 120-126 Brookline Avenue buildings in the Fenway, where the Phoenix’s offices are located.)
This year — and particularly since the season ended last month — the Sox have set to work. They are making major renovations inside the ballpark, and renovating two small abutting buildings they own. They have bought up property around the park, to ensure that they control what gets built there, similar to BU’s strategy around its campus, including Kenmore Square. "We’re not interested in being real-estate developers per se," says Janet Marie Smith, Red Sox VP of planning and development. "We’re interested in making sure the area is as magical as possible."
The Sox also negotiated themselves a partnership with the group that plans to build a new hotel next to the ballpark — pissing off Steve Weiner of SR Weiner & Associates who got squeezed out of the deal, according to an account by Globe business columnist Steve Bailey. Successfully lobbying behind, or around, Mayor Menino’s back. Although it was less than they wanted, they got the state Senate to pass a $55 million infrastructure-improvement plan that fits the team’s needs in the area around Fenway Park, rather than the city’s. They prevented Rosenthal from putting up buildings over the Mass Pike, behind left field (which could have turned into a Wrigley Field–like situation, in which non–Red Sox landlords would control "seats" to games in buildings that look inside the park, perhaps even selling access), and forced him onto a less desirable space — space they control since the state gave it to them, gratis, behind closed doors, because, well, they’re the Red Sox.
As it happens, most of what the Sox owners now want coincides with what the other stakeholders in the area want: a clean, thriving, pedestrian-friendly, T-accessible neighborhood of big buildings, small shops, and sufficient parking. And so the plans to transform the neighborhood have been embraced, or at least accepted, by Boston University, neighborhood activist groups, state government via the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, city government via the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and the state legislature in the form of transportation-improvement funds.
"It’s fascinating — there really is a lot of interest in cooperating with each other," says Pamela Beale, president of the Kenmore Association. "It’s a lot of big, powerful people. You expect to see these 800-pound gorillas wrestling with each other, but the gorillas are all sitting around a table talking."
Fascinating, too, is the question of who’s likely to move into the made-over ’hood, why, and to what effect on the city’s culture at large.
LONG TIME COMING
The transformation of the neighborhood was set in motion four years ago, when the BRA, working with neighborhood groups, rezoned the area to encourage development — with or without the stadium, the future of which was still in flux at the time. Old rules had severely restricted building height and resident density. So, for example, the block of upper Boylston that is home to a Burger King, a parking lot, a Domino’s, a souvenir shop, and the Baseball Tavern has probably been used as profitably as possible, given the old zoning rules.
"It’s amazing that it’s sat undeveloped for so long," developer Steven Samuels says of upper Boylston. The same can be said of the entire area around Fenway Park, which consists primarily of surface parking lots and small office buildings — most of which currently display prominent "for lease" signs even as nearby medical facilities are searching for clinical and administrative space. Even the prominently located Landmark Center — formerly Sears and Roebuck — sat vacant for years, before finally being reincarnated as a general-purpose complex complete with office space, restaurants, a movie theater, and "destination" stores like Best Buy.
Under the new zoning rules, the block that contains Burger King and the Baseball Tavern, for instance, can, and will, be the site of a 14-story building with 210 apartments and condos, 85,000 square feet of office space, and 25,000 square feet of street-level retail stores — plus an underground 293-car garage.
"The new zoning makes the land valuable enough for developers to buy and tear down the one-story buildings," says Samuels, whose group just received BRA approval for that development, to be called 1330 Boylston, last month.
Samuels predicts that 3000 new residential units will open in the area within the next four years; he and his group are already building the Trilogy high-rise apartments up the street, across from the Star Market (which Samuels once tried to buy to build yet another residential high-rise, he says. They also hope to build a towering, thin structure reminiscent of New York" Flatiron Building at the tip of Boylston and Brookline, where a D’Angelo Sandwich Shop is now, and another residential high-rise displacing the Goodyear tire store and a parking garage behind it. The partnership owns rights to develop the "Point" parcel, and owns the parking garage but not the Goodyear — yet. They’re working on it, Samuels confirms.
Assuming those buildings fill with people, "retailers that have long neglected this area will get excited about coming here," he says.
That’s how the Red Sox see it too. "An area that has been sleepy at best will become one of the brightest areas of the city," says the Sox’ Smith.
Close to Longwood, BU, Northeastern, the Museum of Fine Arts, Berklee, Back Bay, South End, and Brookline Village, this entire neighborhood could, if developed properly, be home to an army of young professionals living, eating, shopping, and seeking entertainment. Moreover, if those people do move in, an array of restaurants, shops, and other businesses could be making money off them.page 1 page 2 page 3
Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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