While all eyes were on the Seaport, the Fenway neighborhood exploded to become yet another Boston hot spot for real estate development.
The challenge is whether developers can successfully maneuver a dance that manages to both court market-rate real estate interest without pushing out longtime residents.
“It’s a good problem to have,” said Suneeth P. John, deputy director and head of real estate for Fenway Community Development Corporation. “But at the same time, there is a threat of displacement because so many folks are moving in.”
Over the past 15 years, developers have been hyper-focused on housing-, office-, and life science-oriented projects. The more than $1.2 billion in National Institutes of Health funding awarded to institutions in the nearby Longwood Medical Area exceeded that of 44 states in 2018 alone, according to the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
The BPDA has given the green light to 4.27 million square feet of residential projects in the Fenway since 2004. Much of that is a departure from the neighborhood’s historic brownstone residences clustered around the Emerald Necklace.
The soaring 30-story Pierce Boston — a luxury condo and apartment tower Samuels & Associates developed — extended Boston’s High Spine of skyscrapers into the neighborhood. There are also several other high-end residential projects that have sprouted up along Boylston Street, like the Van Ness, and around the Lansdowne commuter rail station, like The Bon.
More are planned, as a development consortium led by the Red Sox plans to add 2.1 million square feet of real estate — including roughly 266 residential units — near the ballpark. (John W. Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, is the owner and publisher of The Boston Globe.) Nearly 400 new residential units are also slated for a major mixed-use development at Simmons University.
Consider it the Fenway’s new look — one that is quite the departure from when nightclubs on Lansdowne Street and in Kenmore Square were the dominating economic engine in the neighborhood outside Fenway Park.
The BPDA permitted a zoning adjustment in April that increased height limits for potential developments in the Brookline Avenue and Fenway Triangle commercial corridors.
But don’t liken the boom to the S-word: “Seaport.”
“There really wasn’t a whole lot of real estate in the area that became the Seaport outside of Fort Point,” said Jeffrey Myers, a research director at real estate brokerage Colliers. “When you look at the Fenway, this is a long-established neighborhood that has been on the radar of life science companies, health care, residential development, and universities for quite a while.”
“There’s this really strong sense of community, and everything we’ve done has really been that core mission of making sure we don’t disrupt that,” said Peter Sougarides, a principal at Samuels & Associates. “We’re … making sure that doesn’t tip too far one way or the other in terms of the work environment or the live environment.”
That’s not just self-congratulatory real estate talk. Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell once described the Seaport Innovation District as having “all the charm of an office park in a suburb of Dallas.”
But developers in the Fenway have managed to escape much of the criticism lobbed at the Seaport as lacking vibrant retail and other services associated with more established neighborhoods.
Part of that might stem from the fact that the Seaport’s development trajectory largely pushed some cultural and community development requirements to later phases, whereas developers in the Fenway appear to be adding these elements more as they go and not always leveling existing building stock.
Samuels & Associates turned an old Gulf gas station into The Station, a flexible community space that can be used for various programming like a seasonal wine garden and live music. A little to the north off Park Drive is the Green at 401 Park, a parking-lot-turned-park used for community events like fitness classes and concerts for Berklee College of Music students.
It’s a mix of national big-box tenants and local institutions. Target and Star Market line Boylston Street alongside Tiffani Faison’s most popular restaurants, which are near Fenway Health’s main building.
“The Seaport came up very fast, as if out of nowhere,” John said.
But it’s not as if every development is mastering the art of maintaining community alongside construction.
The Bon on Boylston Street has more than 450 units, with 15% set aside as income-restricted. But it still eliminated one of the few remaining nightlife venues for the LGBTQ+ community in the city; though, developers plan to include an LGBTQ-focused theater.
Further, WS Development — a developer leading a significant chunk of the construction in the Seaport and that fielded criticism for pushing public and cultural amenities in its buildout to later phases — is part of the development consortium spearheading the projects around Fenway Park.
WS Development declined to comment for this story.
Affordability takes a hit
While the Fenway might have dodged some of the ire directed at the Seaport, there’s no question the development boom is having an impact on neighborhood affordability.
The census tract that includes the area surrounding the Kenmore MBTA station saw median home values jump more than $150,000 between 2000 and 2016, according to the most recent data from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Prices soared further in recent years, with the typical home value in the Fenway’s 02215 ZIP code going for $629,546 in March, a $110,347 jump from five years ago, according to Zillow.
John said growing enrollments at area colleges have added to the home price pressures, as more students seek off-campus housing.
“College students are putting pressure on existing or long-term residents in the sense that they are in college; they could probably pay higher rents because they’re doubling up or tripling up in rooms,” he said. “Landlords of buildings that previously housed families are looking at them as an easy source of revenue, and they’re often less demanding with respect to the quality of housing.”
It’s swift change for a neighborhood that historically drew young professionals looking for their first post-graduate apartment. There are a litany of older residential developments along Park Drive and other popular thoroughfares like Queensbury, Kilmarnock, and Peterborough streets.
But don’t expect the historic housing stock to get redeveloped into something pricier down the line. Sougarides sees these residences as playing a vital role in maintaining the Fenway’s historic residential identity amid all the construction a few blocks to the north.
“There’s a wide swath of demographics, and I think there’s a wide swath of price points,” he said. “The brownstones serve as a really good entry point. That’s a good stabilizing point to keep the neighborhood in play. A lot of the folks that we’ve been working with for over 20 years are still here.”
The average cost of an apartment in the Fenway is $3,240, according to real estate data provider CoStar. But the rent at one of the neighborhood’s newer residences runs significantly higher: A studio at the Bon goes for as much as $3,150 a month, while one-bedroom apartments start at $4,445 a month and two-bedroom rents surpass $5,500, according to Apartments.com.
“Those price points certainly aren’t attainable to everybody, but the jobs getting added to the neighborhood can support it,” Myers said.
Myers points to the Fenway’s more established building stock as a steady entry point for potential residents looking for a more affordable place to live, but even those aren’t entirely immune to rising home costs.
“That’s not to say given the relatively low vacancy rates and housing crunch in general, those owners [of older units] won’t push rates higher to take advantage of the housing crunch,” Myers said.
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Correction: Due to inaccurate information provided to the Globe, the status of the Bon development was incorrect in a previous version. The Bon is open.
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