Is Boston finally ready to solve its P3 puzzle?
Decades of limbo at what has got to be Roxbury’s most promising development site may finally end with a project that brings good-paying jobs and homeownership opportunities to a neighborhood in need of them.
The planners on the ninth floor of City Hall must feel like some sort of bad karma hangs over the nearly 8-acre piece of land known as Parcel P3 on Tremont Street. After all, the Boston Planning & Development Agency has presided over years of aborted efforts to get something built on what happens to be the largest vacant parcel in its inventory.
Now the agency is launching a new competition to find the right developers for P3, issuing a request for proposals on Wednesday. The BPDA gave up on the previous development team, led by Feldco Development, two years ago after approving more than 25 extensions in the hopes Feldco and its associates could pull together financing. Enough was enough.
Back to square one? Not exactly. The BPDA learned lessons from its long dalliance with the prior development team and from numerous meetings with the Roxbury community. No more big-box stores, such as the BJ’s Wholesale Club that was previously envisioned there. Massive office proposals are probably out. (Tom Menino once wanted what was then Partners HealthCare to move there, and Deval Patrick had the same idea for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.) And, sorry Revs fans, but this lot won’t be home to a soccer stadium, either.
Bottom line: The BPDA wants a vibrant, mixed-use proposal that would effectively slice the parcel into at least four city blocks, with a premium placed on affordable housing. City officials had contemplated divvying it up into several pieces and making them available separately but opted instead to encourage smaller developers to work with bigger ones on bids for the entire site.
While the property is essentially one of the best blank slates left on the market in Boston, bidders still need to meet certain parameters. Two-thirds of all housing units would need to be income-restricted, compared to the 15 percent requirement when the property was last put out to bid more than 15 years ago. Proposals should generate employment opportunities, particularly those that lead to promising career tracks. Nearly half an acre should be set aside for open space. And developers should show how they will catalyze arts and culture in the neighborhood. (Although not required of bidders, the BPDA notes that some residents have expressed an interest in retaining and reviving the one building left on the site, the now-vacant former home of the Whittier Street Health Center.)
Developers used to skip over this part of town. Not anymore. Property values have escalated considerably in this part of Roxbury during the last decade. The BPDA will price a long-term lease for the site accordingly, asking bidders to offer at least $7.50 per square foot of development annually for a 70-year term. That translates to $7.5 million a year for a one-million-square-foot project that would be a stone’s throw from an Orange Line stop. However, the agency will consider lower bids for proposals that offer more public benefits and that better match the community’s preferences.
Something else has changed. The BPDA has adopted what’s known as the “Massport model” in prioritizing diverse project teams by devoting 25 percent of the scoring to weigh competing bids by the diversity of their investors, contractors, and other professionals involved in the project.
Director Brian Golden says he’s encouraged that serious, experienced developers are giving P3 a look and expects a number of strong proposals by the Feb. 2 deadline. The list that BPDA is keeping of developers that have signaled an interest in getting involved is a long one; it includes some big local names — National Development, Redgate, and Samuels & Associates, for example — and out-of-towners with a local presence, including Tishman Speyer, from New York, and Pennrose, out of Philadelphia.
One bidder that has been upfront with its ambitions is the HYM Investment Group. Led by Tom O’Brien, HYM is probably best known for its ongoing redevelopments of the Government Center Garage and the Suffolk Downs racetrack. For P3, O’Brien teamed up with Twelfth Baptist Church associate pastor Jeffrey Brown, who runs a real estate firm called My City At Peace, on a joint venture. They’ve been building community support, including by offering space to King Boston, the group planning a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on the Boston Common as well as a research center in Roxbury.
Brown and O’Brien see P3 as a way to address a systemic problem in the neighborhood: the dearth of homeownership opportunities. Brown says these eight acres represent a big chance for the city of Boston to give Black and Latino residents the chance to build wealth through homeownership. O’Brien says they envision roughly 1.2 million square feet of development — about two-thirds the size of the previous Feldco plan — with up to 700,000 square feet devoted to life sciences, 350 to 400 condos, and about 60,000 square feet of stores and restaurants. The King Boston center, which would have room for events and artisans, would also be a draw.
The city acquired P3 more than five decades ago amid an ill-fated, urban-renewal push for a highway project that never came to fruition. For Menino, and then Marty Walsh, the vacant lot represented a big piece of unfinished business. Soon a new mayor will get the chance to make the most of a long-missed opportunity, to build a neighborhood from the ground up that will overshadow the mistakes of the past.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.