If the only legacy Jim Davis leaves Boston is the athletic shoe company that he built into a global powerhouse, it would be a remarkable contribution to the city.
But the New Balance chairman isn’t stopping there.
Davis looked out across a crowd gathered on Monday under one of those big white tents popular for groundbreaking ceremonies and spoke of a different kind of legacy: real estate.
Davis has reshaped a piece of Brighton, hard against the Massachusetts Turnpike. His team changed what he once considered a gritty industrial wasteland into a gleaming gateway, in a relatively short time. One by one, the pieces of his Boston Landing vision fell into place across 15 acres: a new headquarters for New Balance opened in 2015, followed by practice facilities for the Bruins and Celtics and a 295-unit apartment complex. Offices, labs, shops. A 175-room hotel is coming.
The crowd was there to hear about what might be the most personal phase for Davis: a vast athletics complex spanning a city block. Davis hopes the facility’s centerpiece, a 200-meter indoor track, will be the quickest in the world. He envisions record-setting races after the place opens in mid-2021.
One recent addition to the plans: a concert venue leased by a promoter, the Bowery Presents, with room for up to 3,500 music fans.
Making money isn’t the primary goal, not with this project. Burnishing the New Balance brand? Sure. Giving back to the community? You bet. Earning a windfall? Probably not going to happen.
Perhaps most notably, Davis bankrolled the new Boston Landing commuter rail station on the MBTA’s Framingham-Worcester Line. The $20 million station opened two years ago. Ridership has exceeded expectations.
It was Davis’s offhand reference to the station, and the six-plus years of logistical headaches and bureaucracy that preceded its completion, that drew the most spontaneous cheers on Monday. After all, this neighborhood lost its passenger rail service when the Mass. Pike barged in, like an uninvited guest, more than five decades ago.
It took a private-sector benefactor to end the long wait. Now, the station could serve as a model for other public-private partnerships elsewhere in the MBTA system.
Davis became a real estate developer almost by accident. He told of how he looked out from the 8th floor of the old New Balance headquarters with his wife, Anne, some 15 years ago and saw promise in what he calls “a sprawling mass of barren, decrepit, one-level buildings.” Guest Street, the area’s spine, was a potholed road lined with leaning utility poles and cracked sidewalks.
Davis envisioned a massive campus built around the intertwined themes of health and wellness. The primary landowner at the time initially had another vision that involved a massive Lowe’s home improvement store. But neighbors rebelled, and city officials nixed the plan. Davis offered an alternative that could be embraced.
There were skeptics. New Balance made shoes, not buildings, as Davis likes to say. But he persevered, relying in part on decades of community goodwill in Allston and Brighton that he built up while leading New Balance.
Davis’s success with the then-small shoemaker he acquired in 1972 has made his family extremely wealthy, regularly landing him on the Forbes billionaires list. Adding up the dollars is one thing. It’s what you do with that kind of wealth that matters.
There’s still much to accomplish: more street infrastructure to be installed, additional shops to fill, another office building to complete.
But Davis is patient.
Commercial real estate can be like a sprint, a race to cash in on a property’s newfound value.
But reshaping a neighborhood?
That’s more like a marathon. And Davis knows what it will take to cross the finish line.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.