It has been talked about for years, but the plan to develop Widett Circle is finally moving forward.
Boston developer Bill Keravuori is leading a group of investors that’s set to close Friday on two real estate deals — worth as much as $175 million combined — that would put together 25 acres in what is known as Widett Circle. Tucked between the Southeast Expressway and South Boston, the area ― home to massive food warehouses ― was once envisioned as a site for a stadium for Boston’s short-lived 2024 Olympics bid. Since then, it’s been viewed as rare fertile ground for large-scale development on the edge of downtown.
What Keravuori might want to build there is not yet clear. The developer declined an interview request, and people familiar with his plans say he’s still studying a range of options, from light industry to a larger mixed-use development similar to the neighboring Ink Block complex. The scope of the final plan could hinge on whether Keravouri can add neighboring sites owned by the City of Boston and state agencies.
“Widett Circle presents a range of development opportunities. Our team is exploring them to identify the most feasible options,” Keravuori said in a statement. “As those choices come into focus, we are committed to working collaboratively with city and state decision-makers, elected officials and local community organizations. We look forward to discussing the possibilities and listening to their ideas.”
A former executive with veteran developers The Abbey Group, Keravuori told the Boston Planning & Development Agency last week that he was inspired by a similar deal he worked on in 2016 to buy the nearby Flower Exchange site in the South End, where Abbey is building a 1.6-million-square-foot life science campus. The Widett site would be four times as big.
“That project quite well informed me about Widett and the similar issues that existed there,” he told the BPDA board, which had to approve one of the sales. “In a lot of ways, it’s a good barometer of how we intend to proceed with the development planning process here.”
The New Boston Food Market, a cooperative of food wholesalers that owns about 20 acres of land in Widett Circle, has been talking with potential buyers for several years, while also trying to negotiate new homes — relatively close to the center of the city — for the distributors and wholesalers who operate there today. The cooperative appears to have reached a deal with Keravuori.
Documents filed with the BPDA say his firm, with financial backing from a California state employee pension fund, will pay it $125 million for the site, and give the occupants a year to move.
Another investor in the project, according to two people familiar with the deal, is Suffolk Capital, the investment arm of Boston-based construction giant Suffolk.
Industry sources say that deal is set to close this week. At the same time, Keravuori’s group has an agreement to buy a neighboring warehouse — on five acres — owned by food logistics company Americold. That purchase was first reported by real estate trade publication The Real Reporter, which cited a purchase price of roughly $50 million. One person familiar with deal confirmed that price to the Globe, while another said it was lower. A spokeswoman for Keravuori declined comment on that deal, and brokers involved did not return messages.
Either way, combining the two parcels would give Keravuori 25 acres just outside downtown, in a fast-developing corridor between South Boston and the South End, with the possibility of more land should the city decide to sell its 18-acre tow lot and public works yard next door, or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority agree to redevelop its massive Cabot Yard train and bus facility nearby.
Two years ago, the Walsh administration began exploring a sale of the tow lot, but the process stalled amid concerns from city councilors about what the site might be used for, and where else the city might base the services such as towing that operate there. Earlier this year, the BPDA began working through some of those issues anew, but that has been on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, a spokeswoman said. Last year, two South Boston elected officials urged the MBTA to study redeveloping Cabot Yard, though acknowledged doing so — which would likely involve a deck over the city’s main southbound rail line — would be intensely complicated.
The pandemic and related economic crisis could complicate the project as well.
Some sources of development financing have grown more scarce in recent months. And some are questioning the future of the sort of dense, transit-oriented development that has been built in places such as Widett Circle in recent years. Any project there, however, is likely years from city approval and groundbreaking.
There are also longstanding challenges with Widett Circle itself. On low-lying land wrapped by busy roads and rail lines, the site has stymied several would-be buyers since it was touted as a potential Olympic Stadium site. Any project there will likely need to accommodate busy rail lines and address flooding concerns, while also improving access to a site that can be hard to reach by foot. That would likely drive up the cost of construction.