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Huge Dorchester Bay project wins key approval

The city’s architectural review board approved the master plan for a 21-building complex to rise on the site of the old Bayside Expo Center

Artist renderings of the mammoth $5 billion, 21-building Dorchester Bay City project on Columbia Point.Stantec

The mammoth $5 billion, 21-building Dorchester Bay City project on Columbia Point cleared a key hurdle Tuesday, winning approval from Boston’s architectural review board ahead of an expected vote from the Boston Planning and Development Agency later this summer.

It’s been four and a half years since the UMass Building Authority tapped real estate development firm Accordia Partners and Ares Capital Corp. to develop the 20-acre former Bayside Expo Center site alongside University of Massachusetts Boston’s campus, in a move former interim chancellor Katherine Newman at the time called an “extraordinary game changer” for the school. Accordia and Ares in 2019 agreed to pay $235 million for the site’s ground lease and planned to develop up to 3.5 million square feet.

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The project has since expanded to include additional property, including the Boston Teachers Union headquarters and a low-lying Santander office along Morrissey Boulevard, with the overall Dorchester Bay City site expanding to 36 acres and a planned 6.1 million square feet of office, research and development, residential, and potentially academic uses.

The Boston Civic Design Commission approved the development’s proposed master plan on Tuesday, with the BPDA this week set to schedule an August public hearing and vote on the project. If approved by the BPDA, Dorchester Bay City would rank alongside some of the city’s largest-ever commercial developments. Beyond the commercial space, the project would include 1,957 residential units — 20 percent of which would be set aside as affordable — along with 15.4 acres of public open space.

A look at some of Dorchester Bay City’s proposed buildings adjacent to the pedestrian overpass that crosses Morrissey Boulevard. Stantec

Stantec, the Dorchester Bay City master plan architect, in 2019 began considering how to shape a new city by the sea from what was mostly surface parking lots, said principal Tamara Roy. The firm was committed to sustainability at the waterfront site, she said at Tuesday’s BCDC meeting, and later focused on its overall coastal character.

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“What is it that really makes this neighborhood feel different from other neighborhoods in Boston?” Roy said. “We want to transform it into a neighborhood that’s welcoming to everyone and vibrant.”

The developers expect to invest around $166 million in climate resiliency efforts at the seaside site, including a new storm water management system and a planned 22.7-foot flood protection ridge to protect Columbia Point and Dorchester from sea-level rise and other flooding. The project is expected to include nine acres of permeable landscape, including 1,000 new trees to reduce a heat-island effect and waterfront green space with a playground and esplanade.

Dorchester Bay City’s developers plan to build a 22.7-foot flood protection ridge to protect Columbia Point and Dorchester from sea-level rise and other flooding. Stantec

An approved master plan outlines building heights and overall density within a project, but individual properties will still need design review and approval. The master plan aims to give future architects of individual buildings within the development — which will likely take at least a decade to build, if not longer — freedom and flexibility to change up the design of lower levels “to create a richly textured pedestrian experience,” the development team’s BCDC presentation read Tuesday. Those future architects will be encouraged to use materials with “warm, natural tones and textures,” the presentation read.

The BCDC commissioners were unanimous in their praise of the project.

Commissioner Bill Rawn, who years ago worked at the University of Massachusetts Boston campus, said he was excited about the possibilities of what a project of the scale and magnitude of Dorchester Bay City could mean for the institution.

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“To think that a project like this is now going to be right down the street from that university … is also, to me, a really important part of this project,” Rawn said.

Commissioner David Hacin said the gently raised flood protection area and public open space will “really genuinely be a draw that we don’t have in some of the other parts of the city’s reclaimed waterfront.”

“I often feel in Boston that we’re not really as aware of the fact that we’re on the harbor as we are,” Hacin said. “You’re really setting the stage, I think, for some very exciting developments in the decades to come.”

Still, the specter of a still-difficult commercial real estate development and financing environment loomed. Commissioner David Manfredi said he looked forward “to this getting done as quickly as the world will allow,” and Hacin, in motioning to approve the master plan, wished the development team “Godspeed.”

Dorchester Bay City is slated to feature a 6.1 million-square-foot mini-city at the former Bayside Expo Center and adjacent properties. Stantec

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