Can Boston hold onto the blue-collar jobs that have been the mainstay of the city’s marine industrial park while cashing in on the demand for research labs?
Developer Jon Cronin sure thinks so. Yes, it’s a tricky balancing act to retain shipping and seafood companies while lucrative R&D buildings sprout up across the Seaport.
Cronin believes he’s found the right formula, one that revolves around the park’s centerpiece: Boston Ship Repair’s 1,150-foot-long drydock.
Cronin acquired parent company North Atlantic Ship Repair — and its long-term lease for 12 acres in the industrial park — in 2020 with labs in mind, the kind of development that could help pay for upgrades to the ship repair business. He started with one piece, at 24 Drydock Avenue. Now he’s ready to move ahead with the rest.
All told, Cronin envisions a trio of lab buildings overlooking the drydock — one of the last of its kind on the East Coast — that together will total nearly 900,000 square feet, an estimated $1.2 billion project to be built in partnership with developer Related Beal. To keep with the spirit and rules of the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park, he plans for Boston Ship Repair’s shipyard workers to occupy the first floors of all three buildings, while scientists toil above them on cutting-edge treatments for diseases.
Ship repair might seem like a strange move for an Irish immigrant best known for the restaurants he has opened over the years, or the ultra-lux St. Regis-flagged condos he recently built at 150 Seaport Boulevard.
But Cronin’s unusual career is actually coming full circle. There’s a good reason he’s right at home with the workers at Boston Ship Repair. Cronin’s dad ran an ironworking business, and Cronin is a structural engineer by trade. He put that engineering degree to work on the Deer Island wastewater treatment project three decades ago, while at engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy. He tended bar at night, and he left the engineering field behind to open his own place once he learned he could make more money from pouring pints.
He launched the Boston Beer Garden in Southie in 1995 (now home to The Broadway), his first of many restaurants. He made one acquisition in 2005 that proved to be particularly fortuitous: the waterfront building that was then home to the Seaport Bar & Grille and the Eastern Pier II. Cronin replaced these with his own concepts, Whiskey Priest and Atlantic Beer Garden. With the Seaport changing around him, Cronin laid the groundwork for the 22-story St. Regis condo tower that opens this week. The first two sales closed last week.
Permitting for the tower — Cronin’s largest real estate project at the time — was complex. It also was contentious, largely because of a Conservation Law Foundation lawsuit that argued Cronin promised too little in public benefits to justify such a tall building that close to the harbor’s edge. CLF settled in early 2018, after Cronin agreed to more public space and millions of dollars in mitigation.
As the St. Regis project got underway, Cronin turned his attention to the city-owned marine industrial park nearby. City officials had started to encourage more private-sector investment in the park by allowing new buildings with labs on upper levels while keeping the ground floors devoted to traditional industrial uses. (A master plan update for the park still awaits state approval.)
Among the first parcels to go this route: 24 Drydock. The Boston Planning & Development Agency and Boston Ship Repair cleaved off the parcel and the empty brick building that sat there from the ship company’s designated property, and put it out to bid.
Cronin won the contest in early 2020, in part by promising to subsidize a free shuttle between the park and Roxbury’s Nubian Square. Through that process, Cronin got to know the executives at Boston Ship Repair. When private equity firm NewSpring Capital put Boston Ship Repair and a sister business in Philadelphia up for sale, Cronin jumped at the opportunity. He estimates he will have invested $60 million by the time the real estate projects begin — including the business acquisition price, property improvements, and predevelopment costs. (He owns the restaurant group separately, with two partners.)
Trying to attract new blood to the shipyard has been tough. The pay is good, often in the six figures. But the work is inconsistent: Cronin estimates that the company works on three ships a year, for two to three months at a stretch, mostly through federal contracts. About 50 people work there now, but that ramps up to as many as 200 when a repair crew is in full swing. Conditions are also less than ideal: prefab buildings, limited or nonexistent HVAC systems, not even a cafeteria. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer.
A modern headquarters for Boston Ship Repair should help. That’s the goal of the eight-story, 240,000-square-foot building Cronin is developing with Related Beal at 24 Drydock, to be shared with life sciences tenants. With approval for 24 Drydock secured in October, Cronin expects to start construction early next year and will soon file plans for a similarly-sized structure at 28 Drydock, and a 400,000-square-foot building at Capstan Way.
Cronin hopes to provide more steady work for Boston Ship Repair by bidding on steel fabrication contracts for construction and utility jobs around the city. And Boston Ship Repair has begun talking with Eversource about getting involved with offshore wind turbine construction.
He said he doesn’t have any lab tenants lined up yet for 24 Drydock but is in talks with three companies with existing facilities in the area. He sees the unusual venue as a selling point, not a detriment. There’s a growing cluster of life science companies in the park — Related Beal is part of a group developing an expanded campus there for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, for instance — and potential tenants, Cronin said, are fascinated by the opportunity to be on what’s still a working waterfront.
It’s a far more interesting backdrop than the nondescript office buildings of Kendall Square. And it provides a front-row view of a balancing act between the jobs of Boston’s past and the work that will be pivotal to its future.