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In unusual move, BPDA hits brakes on Fort Point lab conversion

The board tabled the lab project amid safety concerns from neighbors.

GI Partners proposed converting the existing office at 51 Melcher St. in. Boston's Fort Point neighborhood into a lab facility.studioTROIKA

In a rare move for the city’s powerful real estate arm, the Boston Planning and Development Agency board on Thursday tabled a proposed lab conversion project in Fort Point to allow for further discussion about the safety of lab facilities built directly next to residential property. What’s more, BPDA Director Arthur Jemison announced a “labs action agenda” the agency plans to release this fall to establish guidelines for lab development in the city.

GI Partners proposed converting an existing 97,000-square-foot office building at 51 Melcher St. into a life-science lab. The property shares walls with condominiums, and several neighbors expressed concerns about a lab facility so close to their homes. After a back-and-forth discussion over the type of work done in a Biosafety Level 2 facility, the BPDA board voted to table the project’s approval to a later date.


“We felt that this discussion needed to be discussed publicly because it’s indicative of some of the challenges we’re experiencing with laboratories,” Jemison said after the meeting. “There are fundamental elements of having a lab use that ... create challenges for residential, but I do believe the means exist for there to be a consensus solution.”

It was a dramatic turn of events for a board where approvals are almost always a foregone conclusion. Typically, concerns from residents or local elected officials are aired out at community meetings, and projects are not brought forward for a formal vote until City Hall is satisfied they will pass.

The developers contended they had made a good-faith effort over the past nine months to engage in community discussions about the project, holding 13 separate meetings to discuss safety and address concerns about the type of work that goes on in life-science laboratories.

“We recognize that the life-science industry and the work that’s conducted in these research laboratories is new to the public, and then misinformation and confusion about facts can be a result of that,” said Joe Imparato, vice president overseeing development for GI Partners, which specializes in science, technology, and infrastructure real estate projects. “We have tried to do this educational process, which is important.”


The debate is at the core of a major trend in Boston’s commercial real estate industry — which has seen a wave of proposed conversions of offices to laboratories — and what it means to have those labs directly adjacent to residential neighborhoods. Boston City Councilors Ed Flynn and Michael Flaherty last year held a hearing on lab safety. And the BPDA board itself has approved many office-to-lab conversions.

BPDA board member Ted Landsmark was the first to raise the idea of tabling the discussion. He recognized the potential cost of a delay, given recent increases in interest rates and instability in the financial markets, but stressed the board’s responsibility to fully address safety concerns.

“In the half dozen years I’ve been on this board, we’ve approved about $70 billion worth of projects, many of which have been labs, big and small,” Landsmark said. “We’re fortunate to have this kind of diversified economy with the lab uses that are now being developed, but as a matter of public policy I have to wonder whether there aren’t some guidelines that need to be adhered to here before we build next to a family with a baby.”

BPDA board chair Priscilla Rojas motioned to table the project to a later date, to be set by BPDA staff, and the motion was approved by the board — though “reluctantly” by member Michael Monahan.


“I do want to set expectations that we need to do some work here, some more work here, to get a better understanding and a better sense of the risks and the mitigations,” Rojas said.

GI Partners later said in an e-mailed statement: “This project will bring many benefits to the city, and we are eager to continue working with the BPDA and the neighbors to move the project forward.”

Catherine Carlock can be reached at catherine.carlock@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bycathcarlock.