More than two years into planning for the redevelopment of the former Boston Edison power plant that looms over South Boston, a debate still simmers over what to build there.
In recent weeks, developers and a group of South Boston elected officials have been squaring off over whether the 15-acre site along the Reserved Channel should include housing, and how much. It’s the latest and highest-profile development fight in a neighborhood that has had several in recent years. The conflict pits those clamoring for more housing against residents worried about overcrowding.
On Monday, the developers proposed an either/or approach, filing a plan that included an option with 750 condos and apartments — fewer than half as many as in the original proposal — and another with no housing.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency will review both proposals and analyze the best approach for the site, which has been dormant since the power plant closed in 2007.
The debate highlights competing priorities the city faces when weighing development proposals on former industrial sites: Should it clear the way for desperately needed housing, or encourage developers to use the sites for job-creating businesses?
The project initially proposed by developers Hilco and Redgate Capital Partners featured nearly 1,700 housing units, which would have made it one of the city’s largest residential developments in decades. But those plans quickly collided with the needs of a next-door neighbor, the busy Conley Terminal container port, where ship and truck traffic has increased in recent years.
As a result, those ambitious housing goals have been gradually scaled back, with Redgate and Hilco downshifting first to 1,300 proposed units, and now 750.
Or they might opt for a “commercial alternative” that would devote nearly all of the 1.8 million-square-foot project to space for offices and for research and development.
That alternative comes at the urging of officials who say they’re worried about traffic, parking, and the impact of putting so many condos next to the city’s main shipping port.
They’ve criticized the project in public comments and at private meetings. For leverage, they point to an agreement the plant’s former owner, Exelon Corp., made with the Massachusetts Port Authority in 2014, barring housing on the site as part of a deal to build a $75 million truck road over the Reserved Chanel in front of it. At the time, Massport officials said it was to ensure there would be no future neighbors who might complain about truck traffic.
That concern remains today, said state Representative David Biele, a South Boston Democrat.
“That’s the elephant in the room here,” he said. “That was put in place to protect the working port.”
The restriction came with the site when Hilco and Redgate Capital Partners bought it in 2016 from Exelon for $24.25 million. Nevertheless, they proposed building a lot of housing. The developers got positive signals from Massport about lifting the restriction, provided the residential buildings were set back, away from the truck road over the water.
But the elected officials kept pushing back. Biele and Senator Nick Collins filed legislation in January that would require legislative approval to lift the housing restriction, pointing to the $107 million lawmakers allocated in 2016 to expand Conley Terminal and a $350 million harbor dredging project that will allow larger ships to dock.
“The Commonwealth has invested a lot in the success of the port,” Collins said last week. “We have to get this right.”
It’s a complaint that has been echoed by the union representing longshoremen at the port, and by some in the neighborhood. But others in South Boston argue that building housing could ease pressure on rents in the neighborhood and beyond.
“Boston needs more housing,” wrote resident Blake Lanford in one of hundreds of letters received the BPDA received last fall. “We can’t reasonably expect it all to go elsewhere.”
In its filing with the BPDA on Monday, the developers outlined two versions of the project. One includes 40 percent housing (750 units) with an additional 430,000 square feet of office and R&D space. The other has no housing, with nearly 1.5 million square feet devoted to office and research space, and the rest set aside for a hotel and for retail space.
Project executives declined interview requests and said in a statement that they “rebalanced” the project in response to “input we received from the South Boston community.”
“We look forward to hearing from the neighborhood, City of Boston, and elected officials during the upcoming public comment period,” said Redgate principal Ralph Cox.
It’s not clear what position the city will take. In a statement, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he would like to see a project that “considers housing as a priority,” but he avoided taking a firm stance. “We are still working through the community process to determine the appropriate mix of uses at the site,” Walsh said.
Massport also was noncommittal. The authority is analyzing how much easing the housing restriction might be worth to the developers financially, a spokeswoman said — a potential precursor to a deal — and is awaiting more formal plans so that it can make a decision.
“We haven’t seen a final design yet, but we look forward to further conversations with the developer,” spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan said.
While housing has long been seen as the most profitable use of buildable land in South Boston by developers, demand for office space has surged recently, particularly in areas bordering Fort Point and the Seaport District. Even in the three years since Redgate and Hilco bought the old power plant, companies have begun flocking to the nearby marine industrial park, driving up rents.
That could make an office-focused project on the power plant site more profitable than it appeared when Redgate first pitched its development plan, said Brendan Carroll, director of intelligence at the real estate firm Perry. And if it means there will be fewer political hurdles to clear, he said, dropping housing from the plan might make sense.
“It may be that the most important thing to them at this point is proceeding with the project,’ Carroll said. “They have investors who put up money, and they’d like to be able to deliver a return. It may be the only enemy is time.”