Massachusetts General Hospital is pushing forward with a massive $1.9 billion project to build two new towers as part of its effort to focus on treating the sickest patients at its downtown campus, remaking a critical corner of Boston and potentially boosting public transit.
The two connected midrise towers along Cambridge Street would house 482 beds and new facilities to treat cardiac and cancer patients. After closing and renovating old clinical areas, MGH would gain 94 additional beds, on top of the 1,043 it is now licensed to operate.
Hospital officials, who first unveiled their building plans in 2019, said they need more space to meet the demand from patients, including those who show up at the emergency department and often have to wait for beds to become available.
The project is part of a broader strategy by the hospital’s parent company, Mass General Brigham, to move more routine care to community hospitals and outpatient settings, and free up space for the sickest and most complicated patients at MGH, a Harvard-affiliated academic medical center that is ranked among the top hospitals in the country.
“We’re really trying to focus on high-intensity care,” said Sally Mason Boemer, the hospital’s senior vice president of administration and finance.
Hospital officials submitted detailed plans to city officials on Thursday, with community meetings scheduled next month by the Boston Planning & Development Agency. They’re also seeking approval from state health officials and state environmental regulators.
They hope to break ground in 2022.
At about 1 million square feet, the project involves replacing what is now parking and a trio of modest brick buildings with 12-story and 13-story towers on Cambridge Street, between North Grove and Blossom streets. If approved, it would require a complicated, phased construction over several years, with the first phase scheduled to be completed in 2027 and the second in 2030.
The expansion would involve a major reshuffling of services across the hospital campus. All cardiac and cancer care would move to the building, as would more than 40 percent of all patient rooms. Some older clinical areas would close entirely, and in other parts of the campus, double rooms would be converted to singles. Right now, only 38 percent of MGH’s beds are in private rooms.
Parking would move underground, with 191 additional spaces.
MGH is the state’s largest and most expensive hospital, and health care spending could increase if the hospital succeeds in attracting more patients when it expands.
State health officials are requiring the hospital to commission an independent analysis to determine the project’s impact on health care costs.
Mass General Brigham is also seeking approvals to build three new outpatient surgery centers across Massachusetts and to expand its Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.
The MGH project would have a major impact in Boston, particularly Cambridge Street, which serves as a busy commuter road in and out of downtown.
MGH officials are promising several improvements they say will make Cambridge Street easier on pedestrians, cyclists, and MBTA users, including bike parking and space for bike lanes. About 78 percent of the hospital’s 27,000 employees take public transportation, bike, or walk to work.
“We’re pretty confident this design is going to do a lot to reduce congestion in the area,” Boemer said.
It also could turn out to be a substantial boost for public transit in Boston, adding momentum to the long-discussed idea to connect the Red and Blue lines via a tunnel along Cambridge Street between Bowdoin and Charles/MGH stations. The hospital project is at a key spot in between the two and MGH has agreed to put an entrance for a potential station in the lobby of one of the new buildings.
The Red-Blue connector has been kicked around for years — most recently in a 2018 study that estimated a cost of between $200 million and $350 million. The following year, after lobbying by advocates who say it would better connect communities north of downtown and Logan Airport with Cambridge, South Station, and other areas served by the Red Line, the MBTA put the connector on its list of projects to do by 2040. Next year’s proposed T budget includes funds for more planning.
Having MGH on board, especially at a time when more federal money for transportation projects is starting to flow from Washington, may provide a catalyst to make it actually happen, said Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who represents the area.
“It presents a timetable, and that underscores the importance of getting all the stakeholders to the table,” said Bok. “Timing is everything on something like this.”
In order to build their new towers, hospital officials want to demolish three historic buildings they own along Cambridge Street: the former Winchell School, the former West End House community center, and an old tenement building.
In response to concerns from neighborhood groups, hospital officials have agreed to preserve part of the Winchell School’s facade and build it into the design of their new building. They also plan to sublease and renovate space for a community center and food bank to serve the neighborhood.
Retaining even small vestiges of the old West End is important to Boston’s history, Bok said, particularly as the ranks of people old enough to remember the long-cleared neighborhood inevitably dwindles. But she’s glad the project will also hold space to meet the needs of the neighborhood today.
While the blocks around MGH — particularly on Beacon Hill — include some of the most affluent pockets of Boston, Bok noted they’re also home to many lower-income residents, seniors, and people who struggle to pay for food and other basic needs. The community center and food bank that MGH has agreed to renovate amid the nearby West End Apartments will help address those needs, she said. So would a building MGH owns on Beacon Hill’s Garden Street that the hospital is offering up for affordable housing.
“As we dug in and really listened to our constituents what we heard from current West Enders was, yes, an absolute desire to honor the memory of the old West End, but also a longing for things the community needs now,” she said. “It has definitely been a question of balance on those fronts.”
MGH’s ambitions have stirred complicated emotions for West Enders, who support the hospital but want to preserve the history of the area, where immigrant communities settled but were disrupted by urban development in the 1950s, and where actor Leonard Nimoy and John F. Kennedy once lived.
“We certainly appreciate what MGH has done to mitigate the damages and work with the community and make this not an overwhelmingly painful experience,” said Sebastian Belfanti, director of the West End Museum.
“It’s going to be a really big structure and really big change in the neighborhood,” he said.
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