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Labs in the Leather District? Some have their doubts, but divisive project goes to BPDA.

A long-debated lab project on edge of Leather District and Chinatown has won support for a strong proposal to help develop affordable housing.

Oxford Properties has proposed a 335,000-square-foot life-sciences lab at 125 Lincoln St. on the border of Boston's Chinatown and Leather District. The project would include 12,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and a banquet hall, and was designed by S9 Architecture and Engineering of New York.Oxford Properties

The fate of a long-debated real estate development on the border of Boston’s Chinatown and Leather District neighborhoods will be decided Thursday night at the Boston Planning and Development Agency board meeting.

Toronto-based Oxford Properties Group has proposed a 335,000-square-foot life-science lab with ground floor retail at 125 Lincoln St. The triangular property near the onramp to I-93 South is currently a five-story parking garage with top-floor office space, and a shuttered CMart Supermarket and the Hei La Moon restaurant on the ground floor.

Oxford bought the property in 2017 and first proposed a 24-story, 625,000-square-foot office building there two years later. After neighborhood opposition, it hired a new design team, scaled the proposal down by 115 feet and changed the use to research and development space. Then last fall, Oxford trimmed the project further to an 11-story, 335,000-square-foot life-science lab, nearly half the size of the first proposal.

But even that height was a major sticking point this month with a key architectural review board that advises the BPDA, and at its meeting this month, the Boston Civic Design Commission took the rare step of opposing the 125 Lincoln St. proposal. It last took that step in 2019 at another redevelopment of a parking garage near the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

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At a lengthy meeting Nov. 1, BCDC commissioners — who include several prominent Boston architects — grappled how the 196-foot building was nearly double the 100-foot height outlined in the city’s 2010 Greenway development guidelines, and how it would split the Leather District and Chinatown in a key spot.

“The building still presents a structure that really cleaves two historic districts, and creates a barrier that really only, frankly, enhances the Surface Artery’s division between these two places,” said BCDC Commissioner Kathy Kottaridis. “Despite the many wonderful things that can come from this project, I’m not convinced that this is where the city should be encouraging this level of height in development.”

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Mark McGowan, vice president and head of development for Oxford Properties in Boston, said the BCDC decision wasn’t a surprise. The 125 Lincoln team had met with the BCDC on at least nine occasions since 2019, and McGowan said the commission’s input had made for a better, stronger, more well-designed project.

“BCDC’s feedback and input really did shape and help change our approach,” McGowan said. “That was super valuable.”

At least some of the project’s future neighbors, particularly in the Leather District, remain opposed. Members of a citizen advisory board told the Globe, and the BPDA, that they remain concerned about the building’s size and scale.

“The whole point of the massive public investment in the Big Dig was to heal scars in the urban fabric created by an expressway that cut through the heart of the city,” wrote Christopher Betke, a member of the 125 Lincoln impact advisory group. “Unfortunately, the BPDA seems poised to allow a giant wall to be placed between Chinatown and the Leather District – creating a new scar to divide neighborhoods.”

But the project has vocal supporters too, both for bringing life to what one community member called a “rat-infested” stretch of Lincoln Street as well as for the affordable housing it could bring to Chinatown.

As part of the 125 Lincoln St. project, Oxford Properties has pledged to grant its leasehold interest in the nearby 79 Essex St. to the Asian Community Development Corp. for a nominal amount.Oxford Properties

While most real estate developments in the city come with a laundry list of community benefits, Oxford is offering to hand over an entire building, with room for dozens of homes, to a Chinatown affordable housing developer, for $1.

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The vacant building, at 79 Essex St., was the site of a 2015 hotel proposal that never got off the ground amid community pushback. Oxford paid $15 million for a ground lease on the site in 2018, but never advanced development there. Now it’s offering to basically hand that lease to the nonprofit Asian Community Development Corp.

After the failed hotel proposal, a new developer coming into Chinatown to buy up property initially made the neighborhood nervous, said Angie Liou, Asian CDC’s executive director. Would Oxford propose another luxury building or hotel, and further displace neighbors? Instead, she said, it was a pleasant surprise to learn Oxford would prioritize commercial development at 125 Lincoln St. and would focus on affordable housing at 79 Essex St.

The goal is to preserve the existing building and use it to house 50 to 60 permanently affordable units there. Early development costs are an estimated $35 million to $40 million.

“The problem with Chinatown has been, it’s very, very difficult to find sites to put affordable housing,” said Liou. “You don’t often get opportunities to do bigger developments. When you can add even 50 or 60 units, that’s a significant add to the inventory.”

Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing, said the 79 Essex St. project is an example of how developers could work with communities to identify needs — and then use their financial strength to make those projects happen. But even with Oxford’s help, financing won’t be easy, and will likely require a combination of city and state funding and federal low-income housing tax credits, Dillon said.

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“We know that it’s not going to be an easy project, but it’s worth doing,” Dillon said. “Given its proximity to downtown, the real estate pressures Chinatown feels, every opportunity to create affordable housing in Chinatown has got to be acted on.”

The Essex Street project is a major reason why BPDA staff will recommend their board approve the project. That recommendation has historically been enough to make approval a foregone conclusion.

But these days, nothing is a given. In September, the BPDA board tabled a proposed office-to-lab conversion in Fort Point following neighborhood pushback, a highly unusual move that rattled many in Boston’s development community. (That project is back on the agenda Thursday night.)

Still, McGowan said he was confident 125 Lincoln addresses neighborhood and city priorities.

“It’s such an interesting site, such an important site, but we feel like we’ve struck a pretty good balance, and have a great story to tell,” McGowan said. “We know we’re not making everybody happy. But we struck that balance.”


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