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Boston Developers Find Placemaking Pleases The Neighbors While Driving Profits


Boston developers are focused on making new projects blend in with the city’s historic neighborhoods — and with good financial reason. 

NB Development Group Managing Director Jim Halliday

Placemaking, or the careful attention to tenant curation and enhancing a development’s ties to the public realm, has flourished for years in the Fenway neighborhood, as well as at newer mixed-use projects like Boston Landing and Assembly Row.

Even the Seaport, which was once described in the press as having all the charm of “a Dallas office park by the sea,” has gotten on board with public art, local retail and programming

It may seem like developers are suddenly showing a soft spot for community building, but paying attention to those details helps boost profits

“As a company, only six or eight years ago, if you asked what we do, we’d say we develop or redevelop buildings and put tenants in,” Waterstone Properties principal Josh Levy said Wednesday at Bisnow’s Boston Placemaking Summit.

“Now I’d say we create communities and engage our guests with meaningful dialogue to make sure we’re delivering experiences that get them to stay longer or keep coming back and tell people about it.”

Waterstone Properties principal Josh Levy, LLM Design Creative Director and founder Leila Lee Mitchell and Federal Realty Investment Trust Senior Vice President Patrick McMahon

Not only does placemaking improve the image of an area, it drives up property values, especially at office and residential developments. Property value increases ranged from 5% to as high as 33% for those near placemaking initiatives, according to a 2017 CBRE report.

Asking rents along New York City’s elevated High Line Park, created from unused railway lines in the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, averaged 51% higher than those at similar buildings a block away, according to the same report.  

But placemaking isn’t just limited to developers chasing property values with a blend of local tenants and parks. Even public programming like a movie night or a fashion show that doesn’t require a visitor to enter a store is there to cause guests to linger and think about going into nearby retail — or coming back again. 

“When we do it, it is strictly and solely to increase sales,” Levy said.

A key component of placemaking is the nebulous concept of "authenticity," but achieving it isn’t easy for developers known for building glassy buildings on top of parking lots. It often takes time. 

Samuels & Associates is well-known for its placemaking throughout the Fenway. The developer’s success has stemmed from a more than 20-year community engagement between the firm’s chairman, Steve Samuels, and neighbors.

In that time, the neighborhood has expanded its Fenway Park-focused image into one that still counts the ballpark as a nucleus but now includes a bevy of mixed-use developments, the Time Out Market food hall and a newly christened park outside 401 Park Drive (formerly known as the Landmark Center) that will feature Trillium Brewing Co.’s next taproom in a matter of weeks. 

“Authenticity and accessibility are really important factors for us, so, from an authenticity perspective, what we’re looking for is a community that has soul, either with a personal connection or just a historical relevance connection where we can see ourselves developing roots there,” Trillium Brewing Co. co-founder Esther Tetrault said.  

For Tetrault, 401 Park Drive offered both, as Fenway is one of Boston’s most famous neighborhoods and it offered her and her husband, JC, the opportunity to open a venue right outside the building where they first met, she said. 

Graffito SP President and founder Jesse Baerkahn, Night Shift Brewing co-founder and President Rob Burns, Trillium Brewing Co. co-founder Esther Tetreault, Big Night Entertainment Group principal Ed Kane, The Bowery Presents Vice President Josh Bhatti and Boston Red Sox President and CEO Sam Kennedy

But not every developer is as lucky as Samuels & Associates to have long-term ownership in a historic neighborhood and a building with such personal attachment to woo a local tenant that gives customers a reason to linger and drive up sales. 

NB Development Group recognized its strategy at Boston Landing would have to knit in with the surrounding Allston/Brighton neighborhood (known for grit, music and a massive concentration of collegiate housing) for the mixed-use project to be a success. 

“Our experience was more of a learning experience,” NB Development Group Senior Leasing and Marketing Manager Erin Harvey said. “But it was important for us to not create an island in Allston/Brighton, but to incorporate them in.”

That meant curating a tenant mix of local retailers and local legends. 

Tenants like Provincetown-based Kohi Coffee and health and wellness-focused Cambridge Naturals are just as key to making Boston Landing work as the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins practice facilities and the on-site commuter rail station funded by the developer. The model has worked, as office tenants like Bose have flocked to the project, but so has a more surprising partner.

The next phase of Boston Landing is an indoor track and field facility that will also include a 3,500-person music venue operated by The Bowery Presents. 

“For us, it’s finding a neighborhood that’s authentic to us as a company, and that normally means gritty,” The Bowery Presents Vice President Josh Bhatti said before describing one of the company’s venues in New York located next to a sanitation department transfer station. 

He credited local-owned businesses at Boston Landing and Allston/Brighton’s music heritage as what made the Boston project a fit.

CBRE First Vice President Meredith Christensen, Samuels & Associates Vice President of Retail and Marketing Strategy Sabrina Sandberg, NB Development Group Senior Leasing and Marketing Manager Erin Harvey, Waterstone Properties principal Josh Levy, LLM Design Creative Director and founder Leila Lee Mitchell and Federal Realty Investment Trust Senior Vice President Patrick McMahon

But authenticity is also needed in winning over surrounding neighbors who have a say in what goes up in their own backyard.

Boston Red Sox President and CEO Sam Kennedy said Fenway Sports Group, after talks in the early 2000s of demolishing Fenway Park and building in the Seaport or the suburbs, recognized preserving the ballpark was vital to the team’s success. The ownership group eventually spent its first 15 years with the team pumping in $325M to make Fenway viable for future generations and has spent the last three on “Fenway 3.0.” 

The plan for future development around Fenway Park includes a 5,500-person music venue to tie in with Lansdowne Street’s nightlife heritage. 

But while the Red Sox's owners, like any placemaking-minded developer, have authenticity at the front of mind, Kennedy recognizes they still have a while to convince every neighbor and fan. 

“Now 18 years in, they’re gaining acceptance,” Kennedy said with a laugh. “But in New England, it takes 30 years to be called a local.”