Parcel 13

Parcel 13 is one of a series of parcels in Boston above and along the Massachusetts Turnpike that have been targeted for air-rights development. Parcel 13 sits at the northeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street and stretches east along Boylston Street towards the fire station at Hereford Street.  MassDOT is reviewing proposals that it requested for a development of the parcel.  The RFP contemplates that the developer of parcel 13 would also renovate the Hynes T station which sits adjacent to and underneath the parcel.

This post offers some background and offers a draft statement that I will, after receiving comments, revise and submit to MassDOT. As a state legislator, I generally avoid taking positions on zoning and planning matters. I defer to local elected officials on these matters which generally lie within their exclusive purview. In the case of the Turnpike air rights developments, however, where a state agency, MassDOT, is making decisions that affect the district that I serve, I do feel that it is appropriate for me to weigh-in.

The Proposals

There are three finalists. All of the proposals emphasize a mix of residential units and also include transit support, community amenities, and street level retail. They all target LEED silver or better sustainability ratings.

  • The Boston Residential Group proposal stands out by including 460 beds of student housing, but it includes a high rise tower. It is 25% larger than the other two proposals at 483,750 square feet. It is also by far the most significant estimated development investment at $407 million.
  • The Peebles Group proposal includes a mix of residential components, among them a 4 star hotel, and roughly meets the local height precedent of 120 feet, but does not specifically define an approach to providing affordable housing. It comes in at an estimated total development cost of $328 million.
  • The Trinity proposal emphasizes home ownership and proposes to comply with the city’s affordable housing policy through a contribution to off-site affordable development. It also includes a high rise tower, yet is the least expensive of the three developments at a total development cost estimated at $223 million.

Understanding the Legal/Planning Background

In 2009,  the legislature created the new state Department of Transportation.   Section 46 of the new Chapter 6C specifically empowered MassDOT to do air rights development in Boston without City approval.  However, in Chapter 302 of the Acts of 2010, that power was taken back.  As it now reads, Section 46 specifically subjects MassDOT air rights development to local zoning review in the City of Boston and elsewhere.  Additionally, Section 46 requires MassDOT to consult the Mayor of Boston and make a subsequent finding that a proposed air rights development will “preserve and increase the amenities of the community.”  The RFP acknowledges that the selected development will need to comply with local zoning and go through the City’s Article 80 approval process, which will likely include a citizen review process.

In the late 90s, the City of Boston worked with the Turnpike Authority to develop a Civic Vision for the Turnpike Air Rights in Boston. The MassDOT RFP, at page 22, identifies the civic vision among the relevant planning documents for the site.  In the civic vision, parcels 11 through 15 were discussed as a unit. Note that parcel 11 sits in front of the historically protected Fenway Studios and 14 is a tiny wedge parcel that is not developable on its own, so the main developable parcels in the group are 12, 13 and 15. Parcel 12 lies across Mass. Ave. from parcel 13 and parcel 15 lies across Boylston Street from parcel 13. Parcels 12 and 15 effectively bracket parcel 13.

As to parcels 12 through 15, the Civic vision contemplates that development should:

  • Emphasize housing and other low-traffic generating uses, with careful attention to transportation improvements and impacts in this highly congested area.
  • Line public sidewalks along Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street with shops and other pedestrian-friendly uses, avoiding internal retail malls.
  • Accommodate waiting and lobby facilities for Green Line and bus patrons.
  • Create no more than one taller building (over 15 stories) on these parcels.

In March 2013, MassDOT designated a single developer for Parcels 12 and 15.  The accepted proposal includes a “a 400-foot high-rise hotel and residential building” on parcel 15.  The central planning priority of the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay has, for many years, been to control the height of structures erected north of Boylston street, so as to protect the low-rise character of that neighborhood.  In the conversation about the several proposals for parcel 13, NABB has emphasized concerns about the height of two of the proposals.

Draft Comment for MassDOT

MassDOT is moving quickly to finalize a choice among the developers and has had an abbreviated citizen review process. I attended the most recent meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee and found myself deeply impressed by all the developers as well as by the dialog among the members of the CAC and the MassDOT staff present. After receiving input a draft, posted on December 13, I finalized on December 15 the text below of my comment to MassDOT.

I write to comment on the choice among development teams that MassDOT faces in developing parcel 13 on the MassPike.

I first want to congratulate MassDOT for driving to move forward on a development project of enormous potential value to the City of Boston and the Back Bay and Fenway neighborhoods. The space around the Hynes station has remained a gaping hole in the neighborhood for much too long. I understand that, as the Civic Vision for the Turnpike Air Rights points out, “Given the cost premiums related to air rights, the right balance between economic feasibility and public benefits provided in the Guidelines may only be achievable during strong real estate cycles.” So, it make sense to move quickly when the development climate is favorable.

In choosing among the development teams, there are a host of essential considerations which I am in no position to comment on — most importantly, the financial strength of the developers, their competence to manage a very complex construction project, the economic viability of their particular proposals.

However, I do wish to underline two considerations:

  1. The project that MassDOT moves forward with will be subject to review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which has, after long negotiations with Back Bay residents, supported height limits in the area north of Boylston street. While some flexibility should be expected, a proposal to develop far above the 120 foot height precedent in the area would be directly inconsistent with the Civic Vision for the Turnpike Air Rights in Boston. Such a proposal would face well-organized neighborhood opposition and risk final disapproval and ultimate project breakdown. MassDOT should select a proposal that will remain economically viable if scaled to substantially respect the governing principles for development in the area. The Peebles group proposal stands out as offering to meet this test, at least in its initial form.
  2. The need for affordable housing and student housing in particular is a central ongoing concern in Boston. The Boston Residential Group proposal stands out in its dramatic offering of 460 beds of student housing. Provided that BRG is able to confirm an institutional partner who will guaranty order in the housing, that is a hugely positive element. MassDOT should assess the commitment of institutional partners to the project. In preparing to write this letter, I did speak with Roger Brown, President of Berklee College of Music, who indicated clear interest in additional student housing and also in other building space, but said that he had not yet been approached. The other proposals are less clear as to how they will contribute to addressing the city’s affordable housing needs. MassDOT should consider carefully how the other proposals will evolve physically and economically under pressure to provide more on-site affordable housing.
  3. The area is highly congested already. MassDOT should give consideration to traffic and parking congestion impacts of the proposed development — on this dimension, the BRG proposal is attractive in that it adds minimal parking capacity and includes entirely transit/pedestrian uses .

I have been deeply impressed by the quality of all three proposals, by the sophistication of the citizen advisory group assembled to review them and by the high caliber of the professionals involved by the development teams, by the BRA and by MassDOT.

I am confident you will make a good decision weighing all the relevant considerations.

People can make comments on this proposed statement here or by contacting me directly at willbrownsberger@gmail.com or 617-771-8274.

For additional relevant documents, see the BRA website. See also, our earlier post about the process and our later posts about our comment letter and the process from here.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

6 replies on “Parcel 13”

  1. I live approximately 2 blocks from this proposed development. I seem to recall a similar proposal to develop a high rise office building over the Mass Pike on the western side of Mass Avenue. It was a bad idea then and it continues to be a bad idea to build out high density development in this area. Mass Ave already is the most congested street in Boston and is already gridlocked with traffic connecting Cambridge to Boston and the Back Bay to South Bay. I know that my neighbors would be extremely opposed to any attempt to zone a development higher than the 120 foot guidelines for this area.

  2. I agree that an emphasis on affordable housing is crucial in any development in Boston given the pressures on housing and the high numbers of homeless families. An off sit approach is somewhat questionable if one values a mix of income levels in the community.

  3. Here is the core of the comment I sent to MassDOT. I hope you can appreciate the community’s aversion to the two proposals that include towers that are double the current zoning height, and the community’s strong desire for affordable housing on site …

    I’m delighted to see three developers interested in this parcel. It’s pretty barren as it stands. I’m even more delighted to see one developer, The Peebles Corporation, proposing to build within the current zoning height. It has been so rare that developers have come into the Back Bay willing to respect current zoning, and willing to respect the views of the community that has to live with these structures for generations, long after the developers have taken their gains and moved on.

    So, I strongly endorse the selection of The Peebles Corporation as the Parcel 13 developer. I also strongly oppose the Trinity and BRG proposals because of the towers they propose, which would exceed the current zoning by more than double. I dread the notion of letting the “high spine” concept creep across Boylston Street. One of the Trinity team members in the CAC hearing last night professed to “respect the neighborhood”, while also brushing off opposition to his tower by saying, “Not everyone will be happy.” Towers of that height in that location most emphatically do not respect the neighborhood. And it is time that neighborhood concerns be respected, in comparison to the developer/business/labor union nexus that has dominated the approval process of large scale development projects in the Back Bay for many years.

    Fortunately, the Peebles proposal allows development of the site and respect for the neighborhood. One set of claims that bothered me a lot in the CAC hearing last night, made by both Trinity and BRG, was that they could lower their proposed towers, but that would yield less “economic benefit” for MassDOT. Sounds like a euphemism for less money for MassDOT. I dearly hope that maximizing payment to MassDOT is not the dominant criterion for selecting a developer. The Peebles representative seemed to blunt the claims of the others in saying, “Income creates value, not height,” then going on to discuss the income potential of his proposal. I hope that means that the towers of Trinity and BRG are not uniquely attractive to MassDOT by providing, or claiming to provide, more economic benefit.

  4. I don’t understand the fear of tall buildings expressed here. This is the middle of a city. Build tall, build densely. This is the place to do it, right on top of a major MBTA station.

    Tall buildings can contribute to the civic environment just as easily as shorter buildings. In fact, taller buildings have a nice advantage in that they can support more activity, which makes for better street life.

    It is possible for tall buildings to be bad, but it is also possible for short buildings to be bad. It has nothing to do with height, but rather, with how well the building supports pedestrian life.

    This is a prime location in the city of Boston. We need the density right here. It’s absolutely essential, and absolutely appropriate. The more densely developed the parcels, the LESS traffic will be generated, because people won’t feel the need to drive away for every trip when they can get everything done nearby or on the T. That’s how cities work.

    I do support any efforts to reduce the number of parking spaces in the development. There is no better way to cut traffic congestion and improve air quality than to eliminate parking spaces. This location is one of the best transit-oriented locations in the region and that fact should be leveraged to the max.

  5. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and a member of NABB’s Green Committee I share all of NABB’s concerns about the three development proposals for Parcel 13. I hope you will seriously consider NABB’s recommendations. Thank you for all your good work.

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