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South Station’s mega-makeover

Developers get final OK for office tower and hotel complex

Commuters in South Station.John Tlumacki/Glob File/2006

Note: This article is from the Globe Archives. It originallty ran on June 29, 2006.

The South Station area will see monumental changes over the next decade, as a development team led by Hines Interests LP yesterday received the go-ahead to build a 40-story glass office tower, hotel, and other buildings on a block now dominated by trains and buses.

Hines, along with its development partner, TUDC LLC, a subsidiary of Tufts University, intends to begin construction next year on the first phase of a decade-long build-out, 1.76 million square feet of air space over South Station and above and along the adjacent bus terminal.

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When complete, the connected complex of buildings will include a sleek tower designed by famed architect Cesar Pelli, a 200-room hotel, condominiums, office space, stores, and 943 parking spaces. It will cost an estimated $800 million.

Some $40 million will be spent on transportation improvements that will almost double the size of the bus terminal. Subway, commuter rail, and bus areas will be more directly connected to each other, juxtaposed with separate spaces and entrances for the condos, hotel, offices, and parking.

Construction on the complex, which has been about nine years in the planning, will begin at a time when the idea of building housing in combination with office and commercial space near transportation nodes so-called transit-oriented development is popular in Massachusetts.

"This is in my view transit-oriented development on steroids," Dan Wilson, executive director of the transportation group Move Massachusetts, said at a recent meeting about the South Station project.

Yesterday, the Boston Zoning Commission approved changes sought by the developers, the final approval they needed before beginning construction.

David Perry, senior vice president of Houston-based Hines, said he plans to start construction on the first of three phases the Pelli tower and transportation improvements next year, assuming a tenant can be found for a significant amount of space in the tower.

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The Boston office market is steadily improving, and no significant new space is currently being built, though several projects are in various stages of planning. Perry said the renewed demand for office space and completion of a long approval process, which saw many changes to the project, happen to coincide.

"Our planning process has been almost a decade," he said in a recent interview. "You have to believe in the city and the strength of this location, knowing you have very little control over the timing of the outcome."

A chiseled glass tower, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects of New Haven will be erected over the back portion of the commuter-rail platform, away from Atlantic Avenue. It was moved from an earlier planned location above the South Station building itself, and is slender so as to reduce effects on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and the Fort Point Channel area.

"This tower has been sculpted to minimize shadows," Perry said.

The initial development plans for the site called for more than 2 million square feet of additional development over the station, including a 759-foot-high tower, which at the time was criticized as too tall. Yesterday's zoning approval allows a 621-foot tower with 40 floors of office space or 41 floors at the same height if the developer chooses to substitute residential condos for some of the office space.

Phases two and three would include residences, a hotel, and a nine-floor office building.

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Elkus/Manfredi Architects Ltd. of Boston is designing the hotel and residences. All of the new buildings would have lobbies or public spaces several floors above the transportation levels, accessible by shuttle elevators in lobbies facing Atlantic Avenue.

Although the tower was criticized as too high when it was proposed in 1998, the response to Hines executives' changes through the years has been positive at recent public meetings. "This is a big improvement," said Ann Hershfang, a member of WalkBoston, a pedestrian advocacy group.

The tower would be the tallest in Boston since 46-floor One International Place went up in 1987.