To many people, the Seaport has evolved into a collection of soulless glass boxes, one after the other, with little civic space to engage the public.
But the Massachusetts Port Authority is striking back to improve the look of what some critics have called “Houston-by-the-Sea.” The first concrete example: the Massport board’s approval on Thursday of a quirky 600,000-square-foot office building on a 1.1-acre parcel along Congress Street.
The development rights went to a team led by John Hynes’ Boston Global Investors, which agreed to pay Massport $120 million for a 99-year lease for the site and access to a nearly half-acre parcel across the street known internally as “the triangle.”
Money wasn’t the only factor in BGI’s success. This deal marked the first time that Massport included this stipulation in the bidding: give us your ideas for “public realm” improvements. The wording was left opened-ended, in part to encourage creativity.
Here’s how BGI, a key initial developer in the nearby Seaport Square project, and its team responded. First, Hynes says he asked architect Sasaki Associates to come up with an unusual design. This one fits the bill, with the building’s four corners consisting of arches rising from the ground.
The street level space will consist of a “grand hall” where eateries or nonprofits could set up. (The arch-like structure will minimize the need for columns in that ground-floor area.) The second and third floors will include two civic spaces, such as modest-sized performance venues. A new public connection would be made between the elevated World Trade Center Avenue and Congress Street below. And the developers would spruce up part of the viaduct — more like a park, less like a desolate bridge.
Then there’s that “triangle” parcel, bounded by highway ramps. A single-floor building devoted to civic uses — billed as an innovation and cultural center — would go there, topped with a rooftop park and connected to the office building parcel via a pedestrian bridge.
The 18-story main building would include 525,000 square feet of office space. BGI’s team, Massport says, expects to spend roughly $425 million on the entire project, including the public-realm improvements (and excluding the land costs). Construction could start in two years, and the building could open within four.
The project also marks the second time that Massport has stipulated minority involvement and investment. Much like with the Omni hotel going up nearby, the lead developer here brought on key minority partners. In BGI’s case, they include Don Cogsville of The Cogsville Group, a New York investment firm, and Gosder Cherilus of Eagle Development Partners, a local group. Cogsville says he first became interested in the Seaport during the Omni bidding, but opted not to enter that competition.
Massport’s public-realm requirement did not deter developer interest. Some of Boston’s biggest players lined up to compete in the spring. Massport winnowed its initial 12 proposals to two finalists. (Accordia Partners, co-led by Seaport developer Dick Galvin, was the runner-up.)
Next on Massport’s agenda: Finding a developer for a 1-acre site it owns further east on Congress Street. The port authority’s leaders hope to continue the public-realm and diversity stipulations there, to change the way things get built in the Seaport, one block at a time.Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.