The Seaport District aside, there may be no part of Boston that’s been more transformed over the last decade than Boylston Street in the Fenway. A once-ragged strip of gas stations and fast food joints has become a sleek canyon of city, brimming with luxury apartments and destination restaurants. There’s a hip Hollywood-style hotel, office space aimed at growing tech firms, and a vibe that, while perhaps not the grungy Fenway of old, strives to feel more authentic, more lived-in, than some of Boston’s other recent real estate sensations. For most of it, you can thank one developer: Samuels & Associates. The firm, which keeps its offices in a brick-walled perch on now-bustling Brookline Avenue, cobbled together a big swath of the neighborhood more than a decade ago. Then it got building, launching a half-dozen major projects up and down the street, and hitting the market with mostly expert timing. Today, despite all the changes, Samuels is only half done. A revamp of the massive Landmark Center is still in the works, and so are plans to build on several of the remaining parking lots and old storefronts. Boston Globe reporter Tim Logan caught up with the firm’s founder, Steve Samuels.
1Through his early career, Samuels — a Cleveland native whose family was in the supermarket business — was strictly a suburban guy, building grocery-store-anchored shopping centers along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest. Then he took on something much more difficult: South Bay Center. When it opened in 1993, the complex was the first big new shopping center in Boston in decades.
“It was an unbelievable eye-opener for us. Think about the customer base at South Bay in those days. You have South Boston, and you have Roxbury and Dorchester, and you’re putting this right in the middle. These were not groups of people who hung out together. It was an interesting cultural experiment. It opened right around the time of the LA riots, and it ended up being one of the first responses to reinvesting in urban neighborhoods in the country. It gave Boston a lot of credibility.”
2Samuels’ vision for the Fenway was initially modest, starting with an idea for a supermarket on Brookline Avenue. After plans for a new Red Sox stadium — which would have gobbled up much of the area — fell through, the developer and the neighborhood saw an opportunity for something more along Boylston. They embarked on a plan to turn what Samuels calls “the hole in the doughnut” between Back Bay and the Longwood Medical Area into a “new Main Street” for the neighborhood.
“[Fenway Park] had dominated the personality of the neighborhood. It was a lot of surface parking lots and it was hard for people to think of it any other way. So we did a lot of listening and built a lot of relationships with people who said it should feel like the center of a community. We embarked on a 20-year plan to build out that dream and master plan.”
3The street has changed a lot since then, but Samuels still hasn’t landed his supermarket. Plans for a Wegmans fell through over parking issues. He did, though, manage to bring the East Coast’s first City Target to Boylston Street in 2015 (though Target has since ditched the “City” concept). It wasn’t easy. Samuels worried what a big-name retail chain might mean for the neighborhood, and insisted it take upstairs space on three floors, so it wouldn’t dominate the street. He insisted on big windows, too, which are even rarer for a big-box retailer.
“You needed that connection, to be able to see down into the street, and to see from the street up into Target. That was quite a fight with Target. It was a three-year deal. Happily, the company saw the value in it and was able to go along with the layout.”
4Next up: Landmark Center. That’s what Samuels has dubbed the giant old Sears warehouse that holds down the corner of Brookline Avenue and Park Drive. It’s nearly 1 million square feet, and Art Deco fabulous. But, Samuels said, it has served as a sort of wall between Longwood and the Fenway for too long, and he wants to change that. To start, the developer is replacing a surface parking lot with a park — on an acre that fronts the Emerald Necklace. After that, the ground floor will be turned into a public food hall, designed to draw foot traffic through the building, instead of around it.
“Sears built 10 of these things around the country. There are only five or six left that haven’t been killed. It has sat here, looking pretty from the front but serving as a barrier for five decades. We’re going to try and create a place there, so it’s not just this beast of a building, but someplace you want to be.”
5As if real estate development wasn’t risky enough, Samuels is also in the movie business. He produced several big-name films in the mid-2000s, including George Clooney thriller Michael Clayton. Today, he’s a major investor in FilmNation, which has co-financed and produced several Oscar-nominated movies in recent years. Both movies and big development require creativity, he said, and both reward good story telling. But, he added, there are important differences when it comes to money.
“The real estate business is a little more predictable. When you finish, people can tell you the value of a building, within a pretty narrow range. But you can put 10 people in the room with a nearly finished film and you’ll get wildly different values. You just don’t know.”Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.