The D Street corridor between the residential core of South Boston and the glassy towers of the Seaport is, for the most part, a wind-blown and charmless stretch of concrete and asphalt.
Maybe not for too much longer. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority wants to bring more life to this boulevard, which runs along the eastern edge of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. Its latest effort to do so involves selling off development rights for two empty lots on D Street and a third behind two hotels on D, while the authority awaits legislative approval to expand the convention center itself.
The MCCA put these six-plus acres out to bid in late November, seeking developers to sign a 99-year ground lease to build on the three sites. The timeframe to assemble a bid, though, is unusually short, with proposals due Dec. 21, leaving just one month for developers to assemble teams and plans. The authority expects to pick a winner in the spring. The move also comes as Governor Charlie Baker, who appointed a majority of the MCCA board, prepares to leave office early next month.
Representative David Biele, a Democrat who represents South Boston, said the community should be included. He said he doesn’t understand the reason for the rush. “The public is entitled to a conversation around the future of what those state properties are going to be,” Biele said.
Those concerns were echoed by state Senator Nick Collins, a Democrat who also hails from South Boston. Collins, who co-chairs the Legislature’s committee on bonding and state assets, said he’s against the sale at this time in part because he believes any decision on how to develop the land should be left to the incoming administration led by Governor-elect Maura Healey.
“What’s striking about this attempted fire sale by the [MCCA] executive director of the MCCA’s properties in South Boston is that it comes at a time when the convention center fund is at a significant surplus,” Collins said. “And par for the course, there’s been no community discussion.”
Executive director David Gibbons said the authority is trying to diversify its revenue sources beyond its primary business of hosting events by bringing a steady stream of lease payments for some of the land it owns. The authority also wants to spur development that could augment the Aloft and Element hotels that have already gone up on MCCA-owned land in the shadow of the massive convention center along D Street. Gibbons said he’s eager to get this bidding resolved quickly because Alexandria Real Estate Equities is preparing to redevelop the DHL shipping complex along E Street next door, and it makes sense for these surplus lots, now primarily used for parking, to be developed in a way that complements Alexandria’s proposed lab complex.
“Having Alexandria in motion is one of the key drivers of why we’re moving forward,” Gibbons said.
The bidding documents are relatively open-ended, in terms of what can be proposed. The MCCA wants at least 50,000 square feet of offices there, so it can move out of its makeshift warren in the convention center basement, plus space for community-based uses such as a day care center and as many as 800 parking spaces to support the convention center and the hotels. Gibbons said he also wants developers to add a noticeable amount of green space to a stretch of road that is notably lacking in trees and grass, as well as other streetscape improvements.
“One of the things that is loud and clear from the community is the lack of green space,” Gibbons said. “Right now, the Aloft and the Element sit in the middle of an industrial wasteland.”
Developer Richard Galvin, whose firm CV Properties developed the Aloft and Element before selling them last year, said he hopes additional hospitality uses get built on D Street. Another possible use would be a grocery store, something many nearby residents have long wanted.
“There’s a lot of great development potential down there,” said Galvin, who is not planning to bid this time around. “D Street has this potential to be this great boulevard connecting the core of South Boston all the way to the waterfront.”
Among the groups planning a bid is a team of Rise Together and Boston Global Investors, the firm led by longtime Seaport developer John Hynes III. Rise partner Jim Grossmann said he expects their proposal will focus on labs and other kinds of research space, along with some offices. With concerns that the life sciences lab market may be saturated, Grossmann said his team may end up submitting a project that focuses on clean tech, 3D printing, and other kinds of advanced manufacturing instead. It’s also possible Grossmann’s team may propose a hotel, too; Rise is already developing a 74-room hotel on nearby C Street. Their bid was still taking shape last week, even as the deadline quickly approached.
“Obviously, more time would have helped the process for us,” Grossmann said.
It will take time, maybe a decade or more, to fully build out the MCCA’s 30 acres of surplus land that surround most of the convention center. The MCCA is eyeing the possibility of a 1,000-car garage, for example, on the western side of the building, facing downtown near Summer Street, and the possibility of another hotel on land behind the building.
Gibbons also remains hopeful that the Legislature will approve a $400 million expansion of the convention center soon after the new two-year session begins in January, after legislation that would have allowed the project to proceed got left out of a streamlined economic development bill that passed this fall. The expansion would add a wing overlooking D Street, dubbed the “Pavilion on D,” that includes a new ballroom. This extra capacity could become crucial if the Hynes Convention Center is shut down for extensive renovations in 2027 or 2028, Gibbons said.
“This needs to get started,” Gibbons said. “The [convention] market needs the Pavilion on D to happen. It can’t wait for another two years and another legislative session.”