The three big train stations in Boston have long attracted new development around their busy locations. Now, each station could soon be the anchor for a major real estate project that would rise above the tracks.
In a city seemingly blitzed by new buildings, among the largest are those slated for North Station, South Station, and Back Bay Station.
Boston Properties and Delaware North have already begun construction at North Station. That project will eventually include a 38-story residential tower, two shorter buildings, and a massive retail complex at the long-empty site of the old Boston Garden on Causeway Street.
Across town, Boston Properties recently unveiled an ambitious vision to remake Back Bay Station and a neighboring parking garage as the base of a trio of buildings that would join the Back Bay and the South End.
And at South Station, the Houston developer Hines is attempting to kickstart long-stalled plans to build what would be among the tallest buildings in the city.
All three projects are complex, in terms of engineering and economics. But for the cash-strapped Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, they bring deep-pocketed partners who could help pay for needed transit improvements.
In return, the developers would get access to some of the best locations in a crowded city with a growing population, where getting around can be a challenge.
“Right now these are just train stations,” said Michelle Landers, executive director at the Boston chapter of the Urban Land Institute. “But they’re also prime real estate that’s asking to be used for much more.”
For developers, the projects have a built-in clientele: tens of thousands of subway and rail passengers who course through the stations every day.
And with the right mix of retail — Boston Properties plans a movie theater and supermarket at North Station, for example — the stations could be attractions in and of themselves.
“We think transportation hubs are an important part of the future office and residential, and really of any city,” said Bryan Koop, the executive vice president at Boston Properties who is at the helm of the North Station and Back Bay projects. “It’s incredibly sensible to put density where you already have trains.”
The MBTA should benefit in several ways, said Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
“Being a commuter hub creates critical mass, which attracts development,” she said. “Then once the project is done, and people come to go to a movie or a restaurant, the development increases our ridership.”
And the deals the authority cut with Boston Properties require the developer to finance improvements to the stations. A new entrance at North Station would help busy commuters avoid the crowds going to events at the Garden. And $32 million in upgrades at Back Bay Station will start this summer with bathroom renovations and eventually extend to a full updating of the concourse.
Those improvements will create a more welcoming gateway to Boston, Koop said, both for daily commuters and visitors arriving from farther afield.
“This is really a front door,” Koop said. “It’s a first impression for so many people coming in to Boston.”
But these are harder than your average projects to pull off. Building over a rail hub without closing busy tracks is a big-league engineering challenge, Pollack noted. Then there are the many stakeholders — federal, state, and local government agencies, Amtrak, neighborhood groups — that need to sign off.
“Building a project like this comes with a lot of extra work,” Pollock said. “It requires a sophisticated developer.”
And that developer needs to work out a good deal with the MBTA. In those negotiations, Pollack said, the transit authority has to maximize the value of its development rights but not demand so much that the project doesn’t make financial sense.
“There’s no value to the T in a project that doesn’t ultimately happen,” Pollack said. “We’re getting smarter at understanding how to negotiate deals that strike this balance.”
At South Station, those complexities have slowed Hines. While the inside of the station is managed by Equity Office Properties, which has brought in new retailers, Hines has long held the air rights above the station. In 2006, it won Boston Redevelopment Authority approval for a 677-foot office tower but shelved the project during the economic downturn and never restarted it.
Those air rights expire in about a year, and Hines is trying to relaunch the project, bringing in a new investor and proposing to build more housing and less office space, according to city officials.
Each step can be arduous. Even a fairly routine approval by the BRA was delayed last week as Hines, the state Department of Transportation, and the city continued to hammer out details. A Hines spokeswoman declined to comment. Pollack wouldn’t discuss the negotiations, either, but acknowledged the project still has a lot of boxes to be checked.
“We are actively talking to the development team and coordinating with the BRA to make sure we’re all on the same page,” she said. “There are a lot of moving parts.”
But if Hines can pull it off, it will have a valuable building, said Landers, of the Urban Land Institute. Last year, the organization surveyed young adults in Boston, and 78 percent of the respondents rated working near transit as “very important,” more than proximity to restaurants, nightlife, or a gym.
That, Landers said, should help developers lease space to companies looking to employ the next generation of workers, even if getting the project built is more difficult than usual.
“There may be more stakeholders in one of these than a typical project,” she said. “But there are big benefits to having a train station for the bottom floor of your building.”