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Menino pushes micro-units to lure young to Waterfront

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is pushing developers to build units as small as 375 square feet - barely enough to squeeze in a bed, bathroom, and galley kitchen. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File)THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

The tiny apartments that are a staple of New York City may soon be more available in Boston. Mayor Thomas M. Menino is pushing developers to build units as small as 375 square feet - barely enough to squeeze in a bed, bathroom, and galley kitchen.

The administration is promoting the idea in the Innovation District on the South Boston Waterfront, where construction is expected to begin in coming months on scores of micro-apartments.

Beyond convenience, the chief attraction will be price, developers say. Such units are expected to rent for about $1,500 a month, about half the cost of a typical one-bedroom downtown.


The apartments, though roughly the size of a living room in a large suburban home, have the advantage of being near restaurants, stores, and offices for technology companies on the waterfront.

“The whole idea is to make housing units reachable so young people working in the innovation economy can afford to rent them,’’ said Kairos Shen, chief planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. It has made the development of smaller units a policy goal, but not a requirement for builders.

“It’s an important component of the strategy of the Innovation District,’’ Shen said. “A lot of these people are having a hard time finding the right housing.’’

The small units are meant to cater to a distinctly urban lifestyle, with the apartments used for little more than sleeping. Residents could entertain in lounges and work areas incorporated into the buildings, or at the many restaurants and bars expected to open along nearby streets. For transportation, residents can rent Zipcars, use public transit, or ride bicycles.

Current city regulations allow units as small as 450 square feet. The new recommended minimum would shrink them by 75 square feet, but more important is the statement the policy makes: that Menino wants builders to respond to his call for this type of housing.


So far, about 300 such units are planned on the waterfront. Most would be included in buildings that would also have one- and two-bedroom apartments.

“It’s more eclectic, funky space,’’ said developer John B. Hynes III, who is planning to build about 150 such units in three buildings at the Seaport Square project near the federal courthouse. The Hynes apartments would be 400 to 500 square feet and would rent for $1,500 to $2,000 a month, depending on size.

The renters, Hynes said, “will only be there to sleep and maybe do a little work. If they want to entertain people, there will be other common spaces within the buildings where they can host a Super Bowl party or whatever it happens to be.’’

Smaller units are also included in apartment projects that are proposed for Pier 4 along Northern Avenue, 63 Melcher St., 381 Congress St., and 411 D St.

The apartments’ layouts and sizes would vary, but the unifying trait would be extreme efficiency with space. Many would employ fold-out couches or Murphy beds and kitchen countertops that double as tables or desks.

Draft plans for 400- to 550-square-foot units designed by the architecture firm ADD Inc. show compact bathrooms and kitchens around an open room that could double as a living room and bedroom, or be divided with a sliding door. ADD is working on several projects on the waterfront that will include dozens of similar-size units.


Tamara Roy, a senior architect at the firm, said such apartments can be made to feel larger and more open with 9-foot ceilings and big windows that offer city views and a strong connection to the neighborhood.

If the effort succeeds on the waterfront, Shen said, the city will expand it to other neighborhoods. The current 450-square-foot minimum was put in place to prevent developers from meeting their affordable-housing targets, required under city code, exclusively with tiny units.

Under the new regulations, the smaller units would be counted under a separate “innovation housing’’ category and cannot be used to meet affordable-housing requirements.

Builders are having less trouble securing construction funding for apartments than for other housing projects. But some industry specialists caution that extremely small units may be difficult to finance because so few have been developed.

“The question becomes, how deep is the demand for this?’’ said David Begelfer, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate association.

“And can you quantify it to the point where it will be acceptable to a lender?’’ he asked. “If you move out of the comfort zone of the banks right now, the money is not going to be there.’’

City officials say the potential for such units is strong. Boston has had a huge surge of residents 20 to 34 years old and boasts the largest percentage of residents in that age group among major US cities - around 35 percent of the population, according to recent census data.


Boston recently surveyed that age group and found, not surprisingly, that housing was a major concern. A large percentage of respondents said they would make compromises to live downtown, however.

“What we found is that they were willing to give up many of the comforts that housing developers thought were standard,’’ Shen said.

That includes expansive entertainment rooms, which can be built as common areas elsewhere in the buildings, as well as dining rooms and large kitchens.

And having communal areas, Shen said, creates more opportunities for socializing and discussion among residents who may be working in related businesses.

“We’re trying to build a living environment that fosters interaction with neighbors and [professional] collaboration,’’ Shen said.

“That’s really the theme of the Innovation District.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at