Opinion

Opinion | paul mcmorrow

Seaport development moves at a slow pace

South Boston owns the city’s hottest development market. It’s also one of the most volatile. Despite a string of recent groundbreakings and project permitting, and the new Innovation District mythology surrounding the neighborhood, remaking the Seaport isn’t as easy as standing by the bridge and waiting for the cranes to roll in. Developments that were once stalled are now seeing activity, but it’s a far cry from what used to constitute a building boom, back before the real estate market upended the country’s economy. The new, post-recession building boom is a thankless grind, marked by false starts and lowered ambitions.

Waterside Place, the 236-unit apartment tower that broke ground last week, encapsulates the strange brew of optimism and frustration hanging over the Seaport. A celebratory atmosphere filled the tent that developer John Drew had erected along Congress Street to mark the occasion, because Drew’s project has been years in the making. It was first conceived eight years ago, got its development permits when the market was rocketing upward, and then ground to a halt when Wall Street collapsed. The welcome presence of contractors in hard hats on the property indicates a neighborhood, and a market, on the mend.

Even so, it’s striking how modest Drew’s Waterside Place tower is, compared to what came before it.

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The Waterside Place apartments will fill just a fraction of Drew’s 10-acre development site, which spans a massive block bounded by Congress Street, Summer Street, D Street, and World Trade Center Avenue. The original plans for Drew’s site — dubbed the Core Block, because it covers the Seaport’s geographic core — would have filled the entire site in a single shot. The $600 million proposal bore all the hallmarks of the bubble that created it: condominiums and a hotel sitting atop a giant retail mall.

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Drew didn’t downsize the Core Block because he lacks ambition. He built the Seaport World Trade Center, the Seaport Hotel, and the World Trade Center office towers when there was nothing else in the neighborhood but seafood shacks and parking lots. But these days, ambitious, sweeping developments like the Core Block are dead the moment they hit paper. Big dreams are now parceled out in small bites. Drew would still like to fill out his huge site with a hotel, a parking garage, a grocery store, and more apartments. Those groundbreaking ceremonies will be spread out over years.

The Core Block hotel and parking garage are closely linked to the proposed expansion of Boston’s convention center. But the stalled grocery store component is all about delivering the type of basic retail that the Seaport needs to become an established residential neighborhood. The Seaport doesn’t need the type of mall Drew originally proposed. But the neighborhood is crying out for basic retail spots like grocery stores and pharmacies and dry cleaners to stand alongside its new destination restaurants.

These sorts of unglamorous necessities make a neighborhood livable. They should be slam dunks, given all the housing in the Seaport development pipeline — Drew’s own, plus several hundred more apartments on Pier 4 and Seaport Boulevard, and new condos at Fan Pier. But the Seaport’s building boom hasn’t been booming enough to convince a grocer to commit to the neighborhood. Drew said last week that construction on Waterside Place’s grocery component would likely wait until after his first slug of apartments opens, two years from now. “We have to prove ourselves,” he said. “We have to prove housing is coming to the area.” As a result, the neighborhood’s buildout will continue at a halting pace.

While grocers’ doubts about the depth of the Seaport building boom are slowing Waterside Place, across the street at Seaport Square, John Hynes has the opposite problem. The first two big blocks in the 23-acre development are hung up over concerns about over-development in the neighborhood.

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AvalonBay, the large apartment developer, had committed to buying and building two towers’ worth of apartments at Seaport Square — 750 of them. Months ago, Avalon began getting cold feet. It worried about its ability to fill that many apartments, so it downsized its ambitions in the neighborhood. Avalon might still be in Seaport Square for one apartment tower, or it might be exiting the deal entirely. The housing uncertainty is hanging up efforts to define a prominent entrance to the neighborhood with a significant retail, entertainment, and nightlife complex.

None of this is to say the Seaport is doomed. But development along the waterfront remains a fickle, delicate affair, one marked by small, cautious steps. And it’s still moving far more slowly than anyone thought it would.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.