The developer enveloping Government Center Garage with a cluster of high-rises is revising plans for a key piece of the project, proposing a large block of laboratory space where it had planned a hotel, retail stores, and conventional offices.
The project, known as Bulfinch Crossing, would be the latest in Boston to change course to attract life-sciences companies. The pandemic has not only disrupted the traditional office market, but accelerated a biotechnology boom that could produce many jobs that must be done in person.
“Honestly, I think we’re in the midst of something that’s really fascinating in Boston right now,” said Tom O’Brien, managing director of HYM Investment Group, the developer at the helm of Bulfinch Crossing. “This industry has really become a strong employer . . . primarily because of the institutions that are located here, but now continued by the fact that these really strong scientists and employees want to be here.”
HYM said it intends on Tuesday to file new plans, including for a 410,000-square-foot life-sciences building, with the Boston Planning & Development Agency. The BPDA in 2016 approved a plan for the 2.3-million-square-foot project, which is already well underway.
The final stage of demolition of the garage above Congress Street began last week. Construction is ongoing on One Congress, a 43-story office tower that will be the new headquarters for State Street Corp. and be completed next year. And the Sudbury a neighboring 45-story residential tower, opened in 2020.
But the final piece of the project, on the east side of Congress Street at the corner of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, where the MBTA’s Haymarket Station sits today, is one that could remake the street-level experience in a key part of downtown by joining areas long divided by the hulking, Brutalist garage.
As originally approved, that parcel was to include three structures — a hotel, a traditional office building, and a retail space — oriented around a 5,000-square-foot plaza cutting between Sudbury and New Chardon streets.
In the revision HYM plans to file Tuesday, the plaza remains, but there would be just one building, with ground-floor retail and lab space above.
O’Brien said the market for life-sciences space played a role in the shift. Global investors are pouring billions of dollars into new lab and life-sciences development, aiming to capture a industry whose growth shows no signs of slowing.
And a number of projects planned for offices or housing have pivoted to labs, including HYM’s Suffolk Downs redevelopment, which last month proposed a nearly 400,000-square-foot life-sciences building, instead of housing, near the MBTA’s Beachmont Station on the Blue Line in Revere.
But he also said the logistics of building on the Bulfinch site complicated the initial plan.
One structure would have been constructed over the busy bus terminal at street level above the Orange Line tunnel near Haymarket. The transit authority agreed to move the station to accommodate construction, but only for three years. Building atop the tunnel, in a tight time frame, was too complicated.
Now the bus stop, which HYM will rebuild by 2024, will be across the plaza from the new building.
“You could work for a long, long time trying to figure out a way to build a building that effectively works over that tunnel — but it would take too long,” O’Brien said.
Still, the trade is not without costs. Swapping the three planned buildings for one life-sciences building would reduce the size of the overall project by roughly 50,000 square feet of floor space.
O’Brien hopes bringing a huge chunk of lab space to a visible and central part of downtown Boston makes a statement about the importance of the industry to the region’s economy. The project will go through public comment and need BPDA approval, a process likely to play out over the next few months.
HYM plans to build the lab space “on spec,” or without a major tenant signed on, but O’Brien said lenders are more willing these days to finance such projects when they are focused on lab space. Hotels are difficult to finance after a ruinous year for the hospitality industry.
HYM is still working to lease the top half of its million-square-foot One Congress tower, where State Street is set to fill the lower floors. Boston’s office-leasing market slowed nearly to a halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though it is starting to show signs of a recovery.
O’Brien said One Congress is meeting expectations and leasing its space did not play into the shift toward lab space.
HYM expects to complete demolition of Government Center Garage by the end of 2022. The public plaza and new building could be completed by 2025.