QUINCY — As the sun went down last Friday evening, orange light gleamed off a new 15-story apartment tower that’s the tallest building in decades to go up south of Boston.
Around the corner, on Hancock Street, diners munched on tacos and sipped margaritas at a line of tables outside a restaurant that opened this summer, while music trickled down from a rooftop bar next door.
And a few blocks up the street, past the new Hancock-Adams Common and an MBTA Red Line station where apartments and office buildings are planned, tech entrepreneurs called it a week at a startup incubator that opened its doors this month.
After a decade of ups and downs, Quincy Center is finally coming into its own. With a wave of new restaurants, hundreds of higher-end apartments and condos, and several sizable office buildings in the works, this long-sleepy business district is emerging — or perhaps reemerging, for those of a certain generation — as the kind of downtown the South Shore has too long lacked.
“Quincy feels kind of like a suburban town that’s turning urban,” said Sean Kenealy, president of the Quincy real estate firm Key Realty. “It’s exciting to see so much going on here.”
This moment has been years in the making. Mayor Thomas Koch has spent more than a decade pushing to revive Quincy Center. In 2011, the development firm Street-Works signed on to lead $1.6 billion worth of projects there. But three years later, with no real progress, Koch cut ties with Street-Works and started farming out city-owned sites to an array of local developers.
The first of those projects, the 169-unit apartment building West of Chestnut, opened four years ago. Since then, the trickle of growth has become a wave. About 700 apartments and condos have opened in the last three years, Koch said, with about that many more in the works. Their ground floors offer a parade of new restaurants and retail spaces.
“The whole idea, from day one, was to create a new neighborhood in our downtown,” Koch said. “Housing over retail and restaurants isn’t exactly a new idea. But it was certainly new to us.”
In its mid-century heyday, Quincy Center was more of a retail hub. Hancock Street was lined with so many department and specialty stores that it was dubbed Shopperstown, U.S.A. Those stores are long gone — to a mall or out of business — replaced by retailers that over time proved less of a draw. A handful of big employers — the headquarters of Stop & Shop and Quincy Mutual Insurance among them — stuck around. But generally, the sidewalks were rolled up at 6 p.m.
These days, it’s becoming more of an 18-hour neighborhood. Restaurants have set up shop along Hancock Street — everything from Korean BBQ to Indian food amidst throwback mainstays such as the Presidential Pub. Four apartment buildings have opened in the last three years, filling quickly at rents that — while high by Quincy standards — come at a discount compared with those in central Boston, just a Red Line ride away.
The newest is One Chestnut Place, a $65 million, 15-story tower built by longtime Quincy developer Peter O’Connell. When the 124-unit building opened on Sept. 1, it was already half-leased, said Michael DiMella, managing partner at Charlesgate Realty, which is marketing the building.
“We’re getting a lot of people in their late 20s and 30s, people who’ve been living in Boston and are looking for something slightly more affordable,” he said.
And so far, the COVID-19 pandemic does not appear to have dimmed interest. While the Red Line connection to downtown Boston is certainly part of Quincy Center’s appeal, DiMella said — though the commute may be less attractive or tolerable than before the pandemic — many renters see Quincy as more than just a bedroom community for Boston.
“Frankly, these days, where people go to work is less of a thing,” he said. “So here you have transportation, yes, but also this really cool downtown neighborhood, with easy access to the beach, golf courses, lots of stuff.”
But for the neighborhood to keep growing, Koch and others working on Quincy Center’s revival say, it needs one more ingredient: jobs. That means more commercial real estate to support the tax base. And more workers to eat at those restaurants and rent those apartments.
The existing office space — mostly in older buildings on Hancock Street — is largely full. Citywide, office buildings are 95 percent occupied, at rents less than half of downtown Boston’s. Kenealy said he’s hearing from more companies that are mulling a move south, particularly life science firms looking for locations near the Red Line but close to the suburbs.
Tim Cahill, president of the Quincy Chamber of Commerce, said he’s been getting a lot of calls, too.
“People are kicking the tires,” Cahill said. “Rents [in Cambridge’s Kendall Square] are just astronomical. And there are a lot of workers on the South Shore who don’t want to commute all the way up to Bedford or Lexington. I can see that industry starting to spread down here.”
But industry needs room to grow.
Large-scale office development in Quincy Center has come slower than new housing, though it’s starting. On a parking lot off Burgin Parkway, FoxRock Properties, a development company owned by Granite Telecommunications founder Robert Hale, is planning a 200,000-square-foot medical office building for Mass General Brigham and South Shore Health. Longer term, 225,000 square feet is planned at the Red Line’s Quincy Center Station, where the MBTA awarded development rights to a pair of builders in 2017.
And already, some are focusing on nurturing smaller companies to grow here. At the beginning of September, the startup incubator QUBIC Labs opened its doors — in an office building owned by FoxRock — to its first companies.
The opening was delayed nearly six months by the COVID-19 pandemic, said executive chairman Ian Cain, a city councilor and president of a business advisory firm. But it’s hoping to take advantage of the pandemic to build a startup ecosystem in someplace a little less crowded than downtown Boston or Cambridge.
“Our goal is to create 1,000 jobs over the next five years,” Cain said. “We want companies to have humble beginnings in our space, then spread out around Quincy. This is pure economic growth.”
And if — or as — those jobs emerge, they’ll enable Quincy Center to add even more ingredients crucial to a contemporary downtown, from entertainment venues to more traditional retail — even if the department stores of Shopperstown, U.S.A., are a thing of the past. That’s the goal, Koch said ― a vibrant downtown that serves as the heart of the city, a hub in its own right.
That’s been a long time coming for Quincy Center, the mayor acknowledged. But walking around on a Friday evening near summer’s end, you can finally see it happening.
“The vibe here now,” he said, “it’s just incredible.”
Read more about Quincy and explore the full On the Street series.