Fenway in line for more student housing
A private student housing developer with big plans in Boston is doubling down on the student-heavy Fenway neighborhood. Maybe even tripling down.
Scape, a British housing company, has just acquired a second major site to develop a privately run dormitory for college students and has a third under contract, sources in the real estate industry with knowledge of the transaction said.
Together, the deals could give Scape the potential to build dorms with perhaps 2,000 beds in an already busy and fast-growing area around Fenway Park, putting a big dent in the neighborhood’s acute shortage of student housing. But the plans are already drawing some opposition from the neighbors.
The company, which owns buildings in England, Ireland, and Australia, operates on a model that’s popular in Europe but is new to Boston. Its dorms are operated independently from any particular university but offer 51-week leases to students from any local school, with a high level of services and 24/7 support staff.
Scape sees big opportunity in the United States, and its arrival in Boston is designed to take advantage of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s call for 18,500 units of student housing by 2030. It has pledged to spend $1 billion on student housing in Bostonover the next few years, beginning in the Fenway, thick with colleges and home to about 7,000 students who live in off-campus apartments.
“That’s where the students are,” said Andrew Flynn, chief executive of Scape North America. “That’s where new student housing is most needed.”
Scape recently filed plans with the city for its first building, a 15-story, 553-bed complex on Boylston Street near Fenway Park. On Friday, it closed on the $39 million purchase of the Trans National Building next to the Massachusetts Turnpike and across from the Fens parkland, according to county deed records. And on the opposite side of Fenway Parkfrom the first two, Scape has an agreement with Boston Children’s Hospital to acquire a 1.1-acre parking lot off of Beacon Street, according to people in the real estate industry with knowledge of the deal.
Neither Scape nor Children’s would confirm the deal.
Already, though, some Fenway residents are greeting Scape skeptically.
A number of them attended a public meeting Monday night to push back against the Boylston Street project, which will need variances from city zoning rules. So did an executive with the developer Samuels & Associates, which built most of the new buildings along the Boylston Street corridor in the Fenway. Neighbors argued the schools should house students, not private operators, and questioned how much impact even three Scape buildings would have on the Fenway’s crowded housing market.
“The idea that, say, 1,500 beds is going to somehow change the situation and make a paradigm shift — get real,” said Tim Horn, president of the Fenway Civic Association. “It’s just nonsense.”
There were concerns, too, about the fate of Machine, a nightclub on the site of the Boylston Street project that has long been popular with the LGBTQ community, and worries about what neighbors called Scape’s vague plans to include affordable units, which are not required by city rules for student housing.
Horn said the city should not grant Scape any variances and instead should stick to current zoning in the Fenway that encourages student housing on university campuses. Since that was adopted in 2004, Horn noted, schools in the Fenway have added thousands of dormitory beds, with more permitted or in planning.
Still, the schools haven’t been able to keep up, especially in housing their fast-growing populations of graduate students, who are more likely to live off-campus in apartments that could otherwise house families.
Scape’s model, which offers lower rents and more independence than dorms and targets older undergraduate and graduate students, makes a lot of sense, said Barry Bluestone, emeritus professor of public policy at Northeastern University and longtime Boston housing expert.
“I’m sure they’ll make some money,” Bluestone said. “But they’re also doing exactly what this city needs so we can still welcome young people, and not at the expense of pushing working families out of Boston.”
The Boylston Street project is likely to be just the start.
Flynn said Scape isn’t yet sure what it will do with the Trans National Building — a midrise office building where Trans National founder Steve Belkin in 2016 proposed a 28-story condo tower, a plan that was scuttled amid neighborhood opposition — though he acknowledged student housing is likely.
The third site, the 1.1 acres under contract with Children’s Hospital, meanwhile, could provide room for hundreds more beds.
On a neighboring parcel that’s slightly larger, developers Gerding Edlen and John Rosenthal are at work on 312 apartments in two buildings. Children’s did not respond to messages, and Flynn declined to comment, saying only that Scape is scouting for more sites in the area.
Whatever and wherever they build, Flynn said, Scape plans to be a long-term owner and operator of its buildings. The company may be relatively new to Boston, he said, but it intends to stick around.
“We’re committed to being citizens of the neighborhoods we’re in,” Flynn said. “And we hope people will keep an open mind.”