Prompted by a push for concentrated housing and commercial construction near MBTA and rail stations, transit-oriented development has changed the face of cities and towns across Eastern Massachusetts over the last two decades — from Assembly Row in Somerville to Boston Landing to Malden Center and beyond.
But the idea of living, working, and playing close to public transit loses its appeal if the trains don’t run on time. Or at all.
That’s a concern on the minds of local commercial real estate developers as the shutdown of the MBTA’s Orange Line began in earnest this week. Developers aren’t overly worried — yet. Many consider the 30-day interruption a short-term headache. But that’s only if it results in the repairs the T says it can accomplish in a month.
“What they’re doing is the private-sector solution to a public sector problem,” said Gary Kerr, managing director of development for Greystar Development Services. The company is building a lab in Somerville near the Assembly Orange Line station. “For me, if you’re running a private company and you have a problem, you most aggressively go to fix that problem as quickly as you can.”
Kerr’s relying on the work to be done on time. He wants to be able to tell prospective tenants that the Orange Line’s myriad problems have been addressed.
The potential upside is tremendous, including safer rides and faster connections. But there’s a big “if.”
“Hopefully, this goes well. The risk is that this goes poorly. I think that’s the other side of this coin,” Kerr said. “A 30-day shutdown and it doesn’t go well — that puts us in a really bad spot.”
Real estate and transportation have a symbiotic relationship. A major part of what makes a real estate development valuable — and, in turn, generates tax revenues for municipalities — comes down to how easily people can get to and from a place, said Brendan Carroll, president of Respoke LLC, a Boston-based real estate and transportation consulting firm.
In the past two decades or so, development has crept more closely into the region’s urban cores, with public transportation nearby. Some 81 percent of the 29.1 million square feet of space completed or under construction in Greater Boston since 2020 is within 6 miles of Boston City Hall, Carroll said.
Developers in Greater Boston have homed in on transit accessibility as a central selling point for their projects. By that measure, a shutdown to make major improvements on the Orange Line is a “significant positive” for developments that rely on public transit, Carroll said.
“Having a good and improved system, and having serious attention and serious focus being paid to it — I think that gets us to a much better place than ever before,” Carroll said.
The shutdown comes as the commercial real estate industry is still finding its footing following the upheaval of COVID-19, with foot traffic in downtown areas still a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic and a proliferation of sublease space hitting the market. The industry’s recovery, like many others’, relies on a working MBTA. But for businesses currently considering their real estate plans, just being close to a public transportation station may no longer be enough of a factor in choosing where — or whether — to sign a lease, said George W. McCarthy, president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a Cambridge think tank.
“The mere existence of the transit stop, at one point, was probably enough. But now, whether or not the transit stop is reliable or useful might become a factor in their decision as to where they’re going to locate,” McCarthy said. “[Developers are] still going to do property development — but whether they’re going to be able to attract the same kind of customers that they have in the past could be affected by the quality and reliability of public transit.”
Paving the way for mixed-use development on MBTA property was a pre-pandemic priority for Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, leading to projects from Beverly to North Quincy. And the state has aimed to tap into existing MBTA infrastructure as a way to begin tackling the housing crisis, mandating that the 175 “MBTA communities” allow zoning for multifamily apartments near transit stations.
The state has also relied heavily on private developers to fund public transportation stations and improvements in recent years. New Balance paid more than $20 million to finance the construction of the Boston Landing commuter rail station outside its headquarters campus on the Allston and Brighton border. DivcoWest was a “key partner” on the extended Green Line outside its 43-acre Cambridge Crossing campus. Federal Realty Investment Trust committed $15 million to build the Assembly Orange Line station. And an underground pedestrian tunnel was a major part of Delaware North and Boston Properties’ $2 billion The Hub on Causeway project at North Station.
Former Somerville mayor Joe Curtatone knows well the impact that new transit can have on a city. Without a new Orange Line station at Assembly Row, he said, there wouldn’t be “anywhere near the scale” of development there. It now has two residential buildings, PUMA’s global headquarters, administrative offices for Mass General Brigham, and retailers and restaurants galore. Nor would the 17-acre redevelopment at Union Square have gone forward without an extended Green Line, he said.
“It would not happen — the level of density, and as a result, the major positive impacts you see in economic growth — without that transit investment,” Curtatone said.
In the next month, more scrutiny than ever will be on the MBTA. The main question is as simple as it is complex: Can an agency that has been wracked by all sorts of mishaps complete its work as scheduled? The health of the Greater Boston economy may depend on how that is answered.
“Here’s your shot,” said one real estate developer who asked to remain anonymous because of ongoing business their company has with the MBTA. “If you guys screw this up, I think you’re going to cause a lot of people — meaning residents, employers, employees, customers of retail tenant shops . . . to rethink what it means to be along a T line.”