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New plan for former GE site doesn’t impress some neighbors

An artist’s rendering of a building planned for the site of what was to have been General Electric’s headquarters.
An artist’s rendering of a building planned for the site of what was to have been General Electric’s headquarters. Elkus Manfredi

Since the building that was supposed to be the world headquarters of General Electric is no longer going to be the world headquarters of General Electric, neighbors of the Fort Point site would like to have more of a say in what gets built there.

That was the message delivered at a community meeting Monday night on new plans for the erstwhile GE headquarters site in Fort Point, where the industrial giant in 2016 received city permits for a futuristic-looking 12-story office building. Facing mounting financial woes, GE eventually scrapped that ambitious vision and last year sold the property, shrinking its headquarters to two rehabbed older buildings next door.

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The new owners — life-sciences developer Alexandria Real Estate Equities and veteran Boston-area builder National Development — are pushing ahead with plans for a similarly sized building, with a slightly less-striking design. But they need city approvals for some tweaks to the proposal. That gives neighbors another chance to weigh in, this time without pressure from politicians to do whatever Boston’s newest corporate behemoth wanted, said Valerie Burns of the Fort Point Neighborhood Association.

“When GE chose this site for its world headquarters, it was so important to the governor and the mayor and the business community that it kind of overwhelmed Fort Point,” she said. “Now we need to try and take off the GE glitter, and look at this in the context of our neighborhood and what makes sense here.”

The group’s concern — echoed by several of roughly 150 Fort Point residents at the meeting — is that the current proposal calls for a building that is too big, too boxy, and too unlike the historic brick designs of the old Boston Wharf Co. buildings around it.

They also worry about setting a precedent: This would be the first of a line of new buildings expected to go up along Fort Point Channel in coming years, on acres of parking lots that serve Gillette Co.’s World Shaving Headquarters.

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“This is a very important building,” said neighborhood resident Joe Rogers. “It will set the tone for everything that will be built from Summer Street all the way down Fort Point.”

The project’s developers and designers stressed that they believe they have improved GE’s initial plan, which called for a roughly 300,000-square-foot building, about 200 feet tall, with ground-floor public space, and substantial investments in the adjacent Harborwalk along Fort Point Channel.

Those outlines remain basically the same. But gone is a “solar veil” that would have made the GE roof look like a sail. The new design devotes more space to solar panels and scores higher on sustainability measures than the original building plan, said Sherry Clancy, a vice president at National Development.

Gone, too, are a 30-space underground garage and various overhangs that would have made the new building and its neighbors — two renovated brick warehouses GE recently moved into — feel more like a campus and less like standalone structures.

And the building, already raised 19.5 feet to create a buffer against rising sea levels, will get an extra foot of protection from a barrier around its ground floor that’s flexible enough to be expanded in the future, if necessary.

Architect David Manfredi, whose firm Elkus Manfredi is designing the building, acknowledged that it will look, well, different from the nearly 200-year-old warehouses around it.

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“Clearly, this is not a mimic of the Boston Wharf Company buildings,” he said. “This is the next generation. This is 2022.”

The new owners aim to change the uses of some of the ground floor, as well, doing away with plans for a GE museum, for instance, while envisioning restaurant and retail spaces. But Manfredi stressed that it will feel open and accessible to the public, along the waterfront and in the lobby, encouraging pedestrians to walk between Fort Point Channel in the front and the neighborhood behind it.

“What we’re trying to do is make as much of this as open as possible,” he said. “The goal is to make it seamless, make it feel like something in the public realm.”

The neighbors like all that, though some said they were not thrilled about swapping promised civic space like the museum for the channel-side restaurant that National Development has in mind.

Several speakers noted that Fort Point and the neighboring Seaport lack a library, police and fire stations, and much of anything in the way of open community space. This project, they said, could be an opportunity to change that.

How much influence they’ll have over the decision-making remains to be seen.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency had already permitted GE’s office building, and those permits were transferred to National Development and Alexandria when they bought the site for $252 million. This time around, said BPDA project manager Aisling Kerr, the agency will vote only on the changes the new owners are proposing, which mainly relate to design and how the ground floor can be used.

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Still, in a part of the city where many grumble about the designs of glass-paneled buildings in the nearby Seaport, even those tweaks are up for debate.

“We really don’t want another clunky, overbearing glass box here,” said Fort Point resident Tom Ready. “We can do better.”


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.