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Developers Aim To Make Fenway More Walkable With First Air Rights Projects In Decades

At one point in Fenway’s history, the neighborhood was a sea of parking lots. As development continues to take shape around the ballpark, city officials say the area still needs better pedestrian accessibility. A series of new projects is trying to solve that. 

A rendering of the Parcel 12 development, being built on a deck over the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Three air rights projects are moving forward over the Massachusetts Turnpike, the first time development has literally bridged the Back Bay and Fenway communities in over four decades. 

The developers behind each project spoke last week at Bisnow’s Fenway Forecast: Mixed-Use and Multifamily event at the Westin Copley Place Hotel, and they discussed the importance of developing accessible spaces for residents.

Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who represents the Fenway area, said she wants to make sure the neighborhood isn’t just designed for people driving to its shiny new lab buildings.

“The Fenway cannot be, as it's built out, a place where people are using their cars,” Bok said at the event. “Yes, we need people to come in on public transit, but we also need people to be able to walk.”

Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who represents the Fenway area.

Developers building housing, labs and office space in air rights projects over the Pike say they present new opportunities to create a more walkable environment between the Back Bay and Fenway neighborhoods.

Samuels & Associates’ Parcel 12 development stretches from Newbury Street to Boylston Street. By the time the development is completed, it will bring 20 stories with 655K SF of residential, hotel, life sciences and CarGurus’ new 273K SF global headquarters.

In June, Samuels completed its deck over the eight-lane highway. This marked the first air rights project to be built over the Pike since Copley Place in 1983. The $550M development of Copley Place by developer Kenneth Himmel was an engineering feat, and it later became an iconic retail destination for tourists and residents. 

Samuels is also hoping to create better pathways for residents and pedestrians with new public open space, Senior Vice President Andi Simpson said. 

Haley & Aldrich's Marya Gorczyca, Stantec's David Dixon, WS Development's Victoria Maguire, IQHQ's Kim Thai and Samuels & Associates' Andi Simpson.

“Building over highways, building over active railroad stations is about bringing people together," Simpson said. 

The other air rights project under construction over the Pike is IQHQ’s $1B, 1.1M SF Fenway Center development, which broke ground in April 2019. Fenway Center is designed as a life sciences campus between Kenmore Square and Longwood Medical and Academic Area.

“When we had the opportunity to work on Fenway Center, it was the perfect fit for our vision and to be able to invest in a neighborhood that is expanding,” said Kim Thai, director of development at IQHQ.

The project would connect Beacon Street, Brookline Avenue and David Ortiz Way with Privately Owned Public Spaces for pedestrians to walk through to both neighborhoods.

“Being able to invest in those POPS and invest in those pathways to provide pedestrian and bicyclist safety,” Thai said. “Also just providing more opportunities to attract more people to the neighborhood and stay in the neighborhood.”

Stantec Vice President David Dixon was a part of the team that worked to develop air rights zoning for the city. He said there were compromises that had to be made to bring more development into neighborhoods like Fenway that hadn't previously seen much activity.

“One of the ways in which Fenway played a leadership role in that process was once again saying, ‘We live in a world with trade-offs,'” Dixon said. "We don’t like an uncovered expressway, we may not like tall buildings, but we are building to make trades if we get life on the street."

Peebles Corp. is in the process of getting its own air rights project approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency. In a joint venture with Legacy Real Estate Development, its Parcel 13 site is planned to include a 100% affordable housing building, an aspect the JV feels is important for bringing in more residents.

Cobu's Benjamin Pleat, Legacy Real Estate Development's Jerrod Delaine, Fenway Community Development Corp.'s Suneeth John and Invesco Real Estate's Lesley Lisser.

“The point is other families want to be in this high-resource neighborhood too," Legacy Real Estate CEO Jerrod Delaine said. "They want access to a great education and great jobs and great transportation."

The joint venture was awarded development rights by MassDOT as long as the team makes extensive renovations to the adjacent Hynes MBTA station. The project also includes plans for the first gas-free lab building in the city.

“It’s hard to pull that off when you need government support and subsidies and you’re building over a highway, but the end product is something special,” Delaine said.

As these complex developments move forward, they will add new access points for residents to walk from the Fenway to Back Bay or other communities, bringing more on-the-street activity into these neighborhoods.

“All of those complications are worth it, and it's a testament to the vitality of Fenway,” Thai said. “That idea of being able to connect the Fenway to Back Bay again, and you don’t have to route your way around different bridges and really trying to make it pedestrian-friendly.”