Flowers out, tech in: Massive Kendall Square-like development in South End nears approval
A huge development that could transform an old corner of the South End is poised to win key city approvals Thursday night.
Exchange South End, a 1.6-million-square-foot complex planned for the onetime site of the Boston Flower Exchange, is scheduled for a hearing at the Boston Planning & Development Agency and then a vote. If it’s approved — as projects that make it to the BPDA’s board nearly always are — it could bring thousands of jobs to an off-the-beaten-path part of the neighborhood between Albany Street and the Southeast Expressway — an area that was long a hub for the region’s flower distributors.
Abbey Group, a veteran Boston development company, is proposing the project, the largest in decades in the South End. It’s envisoned as a technology and life sciences hub akin to Kendall Square — but just up the street from Boston Medical Center, which is affiliated with Boston University.
Abbey Group spent more than $40 million to acquire the 5.6-acre site, said real estate industry sources with knowledge of the project, though a final price has yet to be confirmed.
Four buildings — the tallest at 321 feet — would be built around a plaza between Albany Street and the expressway, with office and lab space on the upper floors and restaurants, stores, and community space at ground level. The developer aims to start work on the first phase of the $1 billion project this fall.
Abbey Group executives declined to be interviewed ahead of Thursday’s vote, but they have previously pitched the development as a large corporate campus or a home to a collection of companies that want a highly visible spot on the southern edge of downtown.
Several major office projects, including in Charlestown, Brighton, and Dorchester, have taken a similar tack, trying to attract companies that want to recruit urban workers but avoid the hassles and higher costs that can come with the city’s core business districts.
The 4,000 to 7,000 jobs that Abbey Group hopes to bring to a somewhat isolated part of the South End could put more traffic on already-busy streets. Transportation studies estimate the project, fully built, would generate more than 5,000 car, taxi, and ride-share trips per day, along with 2,300 commutes on public transit — despite being a walk of about three-quarters of a mile from both the MBTA’s Back Bay and Broadway stations.
Traffic concerns were a consistent issue through months of public meetings, and Abbey Group managing partner William Keravuori pledged “significant contributions” to improve transportation in the neighborhood. They include funding to rebuild Albany Street in the area with bike and bus lanes and to finance other street improvements, as well as to extend the South Bay Harbor Trail for pedestrians and bicyclists through the area.
The developer has also promised to work with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to improve bus service or provide commuter shuttles — commonly used in the Seaport, Kendall Square, and Longwood Medical Area — to subway and commuter rail stations.
Despite that, neighborhood groups worry Exchange South End could still overwhelm nearby streets, and they’re seeking firmer commitments from Abbey Group on transit improvements — including, perhaps, for help with an onramp to the expressway.
“We have substantial concerns as a group as to what 1,200 vehicles (the project would include nearly 1,200 parking spaces) added to the neighborhood will do to already choked streets and highways,” leaders of the Washington Gateway Main Street group wrote to the BPDA on Monday.
“WGMS strongly recommends that the proponent more directly address connectivity issues around the site.”
Both the potential job growth and the traffic worries reflect the rapid changes underway in the neighborhood.
The development site isn’t far from the always-under-construction Boston Medical Center and is across the street from property where a 650-unit apartment building, Harrison Albany Block, is planned.
On the other side of the expressway, developers are eyeing Widett Circle and a city tow lot as potential sites for another massive development project. Farther north on Harrison Avenue, new housing developments have already transformed a formerly industrial section on the edge of Chinatown.