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'Dallas Office Park By The Sea' No More: Seaport Developers Discuss How To Continue Winning Streak

Don’t fret: Seaport developers hear the calls for more community space.

The Seaport before much of Seaport Square's development got underway

“Our focus on creating a real neighborhood is paramount,” WS Development Senior Vice President Yanni Tsipis said. “For us, the Seaport isn’t just about building buildings. It’s about creating a rich public realm between the buildings where people experience the neighborhood every day.” 

Chatter of the Seaport having as much charm as “a Dallas office park by the sea” has dissipated in the last year as newer mixed-use projects, many developed by WS, have delivered and brought more street-level activity to the area. The neighborhood previously blanketed by parking lots is now home to glitzy retail, pricey residential units and a mix of some of Boston’s biggest corporate citizens. 

But neighborhood activists say developers are too busy wooing the next big tenant and kicking the community obligation can down the road. Not so, said Tsipis, who is speaking at Bisnow’s Boston Annual Seaport Conference April 25. 

“There’s always an interest in a diverse array of retail options, and there’s a great deal of interest in a variety of civic spaces: a place to vote, a place to mail a letter and a place to see a performance,” Tsipis said. “Those types of community amenities are not only obligations and commitments of ours, they are things we are excited about and have as part of our master plan.”

Building out community amenities, including the long-sought full-service grocery store, is also crucial in the Seaport achieving its growing reputation as less Dallas office park and more Kendall Square by the sea

America’s oldest craft nonprofit, the Society of Arts and Crafts, won a Boston Planning & Development Agency competition for 20K SF of civic and cultural space at the 21-story 100 Pier 4. The venue is part of a greater plan for 127K SF of dedicated public space along the waterfront. 

Creative writing organization Grub Street won a 13K SF space at reduced rent at the luxury Fan Pier condo development 50 Liberty as part of the same BPDA program. The planned Narrative Arts Center will also feature a retail space by independent bookseller Porter Square Books.

That helps in keeping employees at major Seaport tenants like Vertex Pharmaceuticals engaged with the neighborhood and could be a selling point in landing other tenants like Foundation Medicine, which Bisnow first reported earlier this month is interested in a move to Seaport Square

Beefing up community space, transportation options and ushering in more “real” neighborhood amenities to the Seaport will also be key to beefing up the Seaport’s burgeoning status as a life science hub and its overall growth trajectory. 

“The city is so vibrant and dynamic that it’s spreading in literally every direction," The Davis Cos. CEO and founder Jonathan Davis said.

Rendering of the Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, scheduled to open July 2021.

Davis’ development firm has been involved in the Seaport since 1998. Its current properties include the 1,054-room Omni hotel under construction across from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and the 376K SF 88 Black Falcon Ave. industrial and office building at the eastern edge of the neighborhood. 

The Black Falcon property is evidence of the Seaport’s growth trajectory east as well as the neighborhood’s wide net of tenant appeal, Davis said. The building, which is 95% leased, most recently added an airport logistics firm, a lobster company and two autonomous vehicle companies to its tenant roster.  

"The industrial heritage and gritty character of the eastern Seaport, not to mention proximity to the harbor, are attractive to new economy companies because they're attractive to their employees,” Davis said. “There is a trend, not only in Boston but in cities all over the world, of marine-based industrial users beginning to co-exist comfortably with new economy users, adding a new kind of vibrancy to these communities.” 

The industrial edge to certain pockets of the neighborhood is also appealing to life science tenants. Related Beal’s Innovation Square development is in the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park adjacent to Davis’ Black Falcon building. Related is pursuing a life science conversion at 451 D St. and reportedly planning another life science project along Fort Point Channel

Foundation could be in the market for as much as 1M SF at Seaport Square, and Alexion Pharmaceuticals is headquartered at 121 Seaport. Many in Boston’s real estate circles cite Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ move to Fan Pier in 2014 as laying the foundation for a Seaport life science cluster to emerge.

“The name of the game in biopharmaceuticals is clustering, and there are many benefits to biotech and pharmaceutical companies co-locating in proximity to each other, particularly development-stage companies,” Davis said. “It feels like a neighborhood which has gotten traction with the industry and, frankly, the momentum is accelerating.”

Rendering of Seaport Square

But for that momentum to continue, residents and developers are still grappling with areas where the neighborhood falls short. Along with needing more community spaces, residents and workers in the Seaport are vocal about wanting more ways to get in and out of the neighborhood. The city, developers and private companies all claim tackling transportation is a top priority.

“There’s broad recognition that transportation is the Achilles' heel of the success of the Seaport,” Davis said. “It’s clear the planners fully understand that and are working on a variety of innovative solutions.”

In the last two years, several initiatives have helped traffic flow within the Seaport.

The ferry between Fan Pier and Long Wharf by North Station and condensing the number of private shuttle buses running from offices to North and South Stations has freed up room on the road. The addition of new protected bike lanes on Seaport Boulevard and Summer Street have improved conditions for cyclists. Opening the South Boston Bypass Road to general traffic is also helping morning and evening commutes, Tsipis said.

“There’s no silver bullet, but a whole series of singles and doubles currently being implemented in the Seaport are making a real difference, especially compared to other areas like the Back Bay and Kendall.” 

While there may be improvements, neither Tsipis nor Davis are sitting back. Both recognize amenities inside and outside their Seaport developments are crucial in appealing to top companies and top talent weighing a move to the neighborhood. 

“What we need more of is transportation infrastructure, more public open space and more cultural resources,” Davis said. “I’m hopeful all of those things are going to follow this unprecedented wave of commercial development.”

Hear Tsipis, Davis and others at Bisnow’s Boston Annual Seaport Conference April 25 at 51 Sleeper St.