The Seaport District has a lot of office buildings. It does not have a lot of great public spaces, the sort of places where anyone can go and feel welcome.
But the developer of one of the next office buildings to go up in the booming business district is gearing up to create one.
Boston Global Investors is finalizing financing and plans to break ground at the end of the year on a 17-story tower at 401 Congress St., a parking lot tucked between the Seaport Hotel and the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.
The upper floors will be the kind of state-of-the-art lab and office space that companies flocking to the Seaport have come to expect. The building’s base will feature something unusual: a two-story “great hall” connecting Congress Street and the elevated World Trade Center Avenue. It would be open to the public 24/7 and be located alongside new parks and plazas above the tangle of the Massachusetts Turnpike offramps below.
It would be one of the grander and most public ground floors in the Seaport, and that’s by design, said Victor Vizgaitis, a principal at Sasaki, BGI’s architect on the building. It has set up the lobby to feel inviting, with 40-foot glass arches to let in light, in the hopes that it will serve as a friendly connector for pedestrians crossing the sometimes foreboding neighborhood.
“Yes, it’s a big office building, but this wasn’t about that,” Vizgaitis said. “The building we imagined wasn’t a wall or a box, but more like a doorway ― a portal between two sides of the Seaport.”
That plan helped BGI and Sasaki win the site in the first place.
When the Massachusetts Port Authority awarded development rights for the 1.1 acre parcel in 2018, it sought a developer that would use it to improve the “public realm.” BGI — which served as lead developer for the nearby Seaport Square complex until selling it in 2015 — beat out 12 other proposals. It also aims to counter a common description of the Seaport as a field of imposing glass boxes with little to offer that doesn’t cost money.
Of course, none of that can happen if the building doesn’t get built, and these days ― with many companies cutting back on traditional office space ― it was not certain the project would go forward.
John Hynes IV, who’s leading the project for BGI, said the original investors pulled out during summer, as the COVID-19 pandemic rattled markets and confidence in the viability of downtown towers. BGI rethought the upper floors, devoting about half the planned office space to lab space instead, a move that cost one floor of usable space because lab space requires higher ceilings. But the modification didn’t change the building’s outward appearance, or its ground floor.
Hynes said it’s close to signing a new financial backer for the roughly $500 million project and aims to start construction in late 2021 or early 2022.
“We won’t be surprised if it’s pre-leased” before construction, he said. “But we’re also prepared to start work [without a tenant].”
BGI says it will keep refining that 30,000-square-foot lobby, and the parks and plazas around it, because as anyone who has visited the Seaport knows, there’s a difference between places that are nominally public and those that truly feel like it.
That has to do with the details, Vizgaitis said, such as what types of food operators run the lobby kiosks and who rotates through the pop-up retail space. Or how the cultural center gets used, and what kinds of events are held in the auditorium. And, of course, any vision has to be carried out via the day-to-day operations, something that is still years in the future.
That’s where some of the promises of great public spaces for the Seaport have fallen short. But Hynes and Vizgaitis said they’re committed to seeing this one through, creating a place that is truly great for everyone.
“We talk about this as connective tissue for the neighborhood,” Vizgaitis said. “We want to create this amazing hangout. A place you want to be, not an office building lobby.”