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Some residents worry Seaport will lack neighborhood feel

Construction of Seaport District housing, such as 100 Pier 4, had been subordinate to that of office buildings. Many units are pricey.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Construction of Seaport District housing, such as 100 Pier 4, had been subordinate to that of office buildings. Many units are pricey.

From her home in an artists’ cooperative building on A Street, Valerie Burns watched the dramatic changes that transformed the South Boston Waterfront over the past three decades.

The cleanup of the harbor. The vast convention center. The Big Dig. And then, after the Great Recession, all the construction, and the new offices it brought.

But to Burns, this mosaic is still missing something. There are no schools, no library. It’s hard to find a place to play soccer or baseball. And the biggest problem Burns sees? There simply aren’t enough neighbors.

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“The housing has been slow to come and seems to be, at this point, nowhere in balance with the office uses,” Burns said.

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Yes, there are more than 2,000 housing units in the Seaport now, nearly double the amount that existed five years ago, with many more on the way. But as the 620-acre area enters a major phase of construction, longstanding questions remain about the role housing plays in the city’s waterfront evolution.

Developers say the place is a lively showpiece for Boston’s economic renaissance and new residential buildings are a piece of that. Planners and academic experts take a more measured view, calling it a work in progress.

Many longtime residents, however, say it still doesn’t feel like a fully functioning neighborhood. The new housing is disparate, much of it ensconced in towers, geared for newcomers with high incomes. Amenities and services that are typical in other parts of Boston, meanwhile, are in short supply here. That has left some residents wondering if the neighborhood they envisioned will ever materialize.

“I’d say we have an anonymous office district emerging [that] could be anywhere in the world,” said Jon Seward, a Fort Point resident who owns a firm that provides planning and architectural design services. “All those things that you expect to see in a neighborhood center that help you get your life done, we basically don’t have them.”

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In a 1999 report, the Boston Redevelopment Authority envisioned 5,000 to 8,000 new residential units in the Seaport, an area that stretches from the brick Fort Point warehouses to the city’s marine industrial park. At the time, there were fewer than 300 residential units, according to a BRA spokesman.

By 2010, that number increased to 1,200 units. Today, the redevelopment authority counts nearly 2,100 units, and says another 1,700 are scheduled to open in the next 20 months.

But the residential density is relatively low once you take into account the full size of the Seaport area — and the sheer scope of the commercial properties that have been built. The contours of the Seaport, with its numerous highway ramps, can also make parts of it seem inhospitable to walking.

“It’s scattered at best,” Richard Taylor, director of Suffolk University’s Center for Real Estate, said of the housing. “The central question is, given the character of the development thus far, would you really view it as a walkable neighborhood?”

Parking lots in South Boston have been sold for a complex that will include housing. Developers say a lease for a CVS store has been signed.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Parking lots in South Boston have been sold for a complex that will include housing. Developers say a lease for a CVS store has been signed.

Rich McGuinness, a waterfront planner at the BRA, said his agency first wanted housing to comprise about one-third of new construction. He said city officials increased that goal to 40 percent in 2010 when they branded the area as the “Innovation District.”

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He concedes that commercial uses, primarily offices, have dominated construction. But he said investors’ interest in residential development is finally catching up, as exemplified by the 832-unit apartment complex under way, across from the federal courthouse, in the Seaport Square development.

The housing is ‘scattered at best. The central question is, given the character of the development thus far, would you really view it as a walkable neighborhood?

Richard Taylor, director of Suffolk University’s Center for Real Estate  

Joe Fallon, whose company is developing the 21-acre Fan Pier, sees all the activity along the water’s edge — from restaurants to hotels — as a sure sign of the district’s vibrancy.

“Part of the issue is many Bostonians think of a neighborhood as just Back Bay or Beacon Hill, “ Fallon said. “But if you look at any other city across the country, you’ll see this is similar to other neighborhoods that are new.”

One of the big knocks on the Seaport is that it lacks a drugstore and a full-scale supermarket — basic staples of many neighborhoods. Newton-based WS Development, which handles retail leasing for the Seaport Square development, recently signed a lease for a CVS. WS vice president Brian Sciera said it’s a matter of time before the firm signs a grocery store. Other future tenants include a Kings bowling alley and a ShowPlace Icon movie theater.

With the WS deal last month to buy 12.5 acres of the Seaport Square project for $359 million, the project’s focus will widen to include converting much of the remaining parking spaces into housing. Sciera said it’s too early to say how many residential units will be proposed for that land.

These new units, most of them rentals, aren’t cheap: The monthly rents at the new 100 Pier 4 tower, for example, range from nearly $2,900 up to $6,300. The dearth of middle-class housing — and units with more than two bedrooms, in particular — could confound efforts to attract more families with children.

“The desirability of this location is making the Seaport a victim of its attractiveness,” said Armando Carbonell, an urban planner at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge. “Housing is going to be the major ingredient to that success, not just high-end housing. Families make a difference. You’re not going to have families without larger units, and at some level, schools.”

Summer Street tech firm LogMeIn is about to double its size, with a new office building across the street from its current space. But president Bill Wagner said he worries about how his workers — hundreds of them, many under 35 — are going to get there without affordable housing options within walking distance: “People would love to live near the office, but it’s a nonstarter for the majority of employees.”

Even if the BRA meets its housing goal, Fort Point resident Steve Hollinger said he’s worried it won’t be enough.

He said a widely quoted transportation report that suggested nearly 11,000 people lived in the Seaport in 2013 overinflated the number because it included areas away from the waterfront. Without those add-ons, he said, the actual number is much smaller and that’s a concern.

“The density per acre is way too slim to call that a neighborhood,” Hollinger said.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.