After languishing for decades as a wasteland of vast parking lots, wharfs and fishing docks, the South Boston Seaport is humming with development. The roughly 1,000-acre section of waterfront, bounded by the Fort Point Channel and the Reserved Channel, was under water until the late 1800s, when it was filled and used for shipping. In rough terms, the neighborhood sits south of the Financial District, across the harbor from Logan Airport.
Now glossy condo towers and office buildings rise, as people jog and bike along Fan Pier’s new waterfront park. General Electric announced in January it’s relocating to Boston, building a new corporate headquarters along the Fort Point Channel.
In the last five years, roughly $2 billion worth of construction has been permitted in the seaport, including 1.3 million square feet of retail. It is home to the city’s hottest restaurant scene, a handful of new hotels, and, soon, a SoulCycle.
Richard McGuinness, deputy director for waterfront development at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said the city’s $7 billion investment in infrastructure, which created on-ramps for Interstate 90 and Interstate 93 in the seaport, transformed the neighborhood. “This boosted access to the seaport and really unlocked the economic value. In the past, people could only access the seaport through local roads and narrow bridges.”
And, a trio of absentee owners who collectively owned most of the land sold in the past decade, clearing the way for locals with big visions.
But if you want to buy something other than a hotel room or a meal, you’re out of luck. There’s no retail — yet.
“This isn’t a case of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ It’s already here,” noted Samantha David, head of the Up Markets division of Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based WS Development Associates, which will be bringing retail to the neighborhood. WS is building out a 20-block stretch of the seaport over the next decade, a total of 3.3 million square feet of mixed-use space that’s the largest real estate project in Boston history. They’ve brought in a trio of firms to master plan, including James Corner Field Operations, known for the High Line projects in New York; Watertown, Mass.-based Sasaki, which worked on Chicago’s Riverwalk; and Nadaaa, a boutique conceptual firm founded by Nader Tehrani, a dean at the Cooper Union.
Retail represents a little more than a third of that, 1.3 million square feet, with the first tenant openings next year.
WS has signed on Equinox gym and Showcase Cinemas, vegan restaurant By Chloe, Philadelphia coffee company La Colombe, and a juice company. David said the company has signed fashion tenants, but won’t disclose specifics for another month. She characterized the mix as being “as focused on companies who are opening their second location as companies opening their 25th.”
“When you walk down the streets of this neighborhood, people are wearing Margiela and Acne and Tom Ford, but they bought it online,” David observed. “We are going to give them the ability to buy it right here.”
Of course, there’s a possibility some of it was, in fact, bought in the seaport. Specialty store Louis Boston operated there for five years, in a temporary space on Fan Pier. Though she opted to retire at age 59 rather than sign a long-term lease, owner Debi Greenberg called moving to the seaport “the best decision I ever made for Louis.”
“There really has been a transformation,” said developer Joe Fallon, who purchased Fan Pier, a nine-block waterfront site, from the Pritzker family in 2005 and built an office tower for Vertex Pharmaceuticals. That ushered in a wave of biotech venture capitalists, lawyers and executives who snatched up luxury condos. “There is a high-energy vibe. GE saw that, and wanted to be a part of it.”
Cottonwood Management, a development company founded by an MIT graduate, has earmarked some condos to be “innovation units,” which means smaller apartments with access to social/collaborative spaces such as kitchens, roof decks, work areas and conference rooms.
“A third of Boston residents are highly educated, age 20 to 35,” said McGuinness. “They come for school here, and they don’t want to leave. They don’t necessarily need a huge apartment.”
For a city known for red brick and quaint, crooked streets, the seaport will be something radical: a mini city on a grid, with a thoroughly contemporary aesthetic. It has the power to reorient the city, according to some observers.
In a research note, analysts at real estate brokerage firm CBRE concluded, “When one looks up another 10 years from now, projections are for 2 million square feet of retail, 12,000 residential units, 5,600 hotel room keys and millions of square feet of office [space.] The seaport will become Boston’s new Newbury Street and totally shift the direction of growth within the city.” ■