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The Seaport Pushes Its Boundaries Amid Calls For Storm Resiliency

A string of 2018 nor’easters pummeling New England — the fourth, dubbed "Four’easter," is expected to hit Wednesday — has reminded Boston its Seaport neighborhood is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. But that is not slowing down the cranes in this hotbed of Boston development.

The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center

"In their original study, the [Boston Redevelopment Agency] projected that it was going to take 15 to 20 years for the Seaport District, as we knew it at the time, to be built out,” The Davis Cos. founder and CEO Jonathan Davis said. “Not only is the pace of development accelerating, but the limits of the Seaport are being redefined.”

Cranes dotting the Seaport are not new, but the boundaries of the neighborhood are. More developers are pushing ahead with projects on the eastern edge of the neighborhood in the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park, including Davis, Related Beal and MP Boston, the new name for Millennium Partners' local entity.

But with a stalled expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center poised to move ahead, the D Street corridor into South Boston is positioned for liftoff, crowned by a 1,054-room Omni Hotel, which The Davis Cos. is developing with other firms in a partnership called New Boston Hospitality

“There’s an important symbiosis between the expansion of the convention center and the construction of our hotel,” Davis said. “Without our hotel, the convention center authority said they couldn’t expand, given that Boston ranked 17th in the country for the number of hotel rooms within walking distance to its convention center.”

Gov. Charlie Baker tabled a $1B plan to expand the BCEC in 2015. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority indicated a willingness to move forward Thursday after approving a $2.2M study to explore the viability of future expansion and to create a master plan. The study is focused on keeping the 30 acres of developable land tied to convention-related uses.

Neighborhood advocates have been concerned the land, which was taken via eminent domain in the 1990s, would wind up in the hands of private developers after expansion plans stalled.

Rendering of the Omni Hotel across the street from the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center

Supporters of the expansion grew optimistic in 2017 when Omni got approval to build the hotel, as convention groups often cite the Seaport’s lack of hotel rooms near the BCEC as reason to bypass Boston for cities with lower event costs.

Meeting planners typically spend $12K for ground transportation at conventions nationwide, according to the MCCA. In Boston, planners are forced to spend between $350K and $450K to shuttle attendees from the BCEC to hotels in other neighborhoods. 

“One of the things we’re excited about is how our hotel is unlocking more convention business,” he said. “There’s this odd dynamic of supply-induced demand. Where can you find a real estate project where by virtue of building it you’re increasing demand for what you’re building?”

The potential for the convention center expansion to be back on comes at a busy time in the waterfront neighborhood. Related Beal broke ground in December on iSQ, a 375K SF project in the Flynn complex that will include Mass Innovation Labs as an anchor tenant. MP Boston is pursuing an aerial gondola that would connect a potential 1.8M SF development near Innovation Square to South Station. 

While the borders may change, developers and residents still chide the neighborhood for its lackluster, boxy architecture, and near-universal warnings abound for the Seaport’s storm vulnerability. With this week’s nor’easter threatening more floods in the low-lying neighborhood, Arrowstreet principal Amy Korte says innovation districts around the world should be an inspiration. She points to The Confluence District in Lyon, France, as a model for Boston.

The Confluence District in Lyon, France

“While the buildings there have pushed the boundaries much more than the first phase of architecture in the Seaport, the Confluence, as of a few years ago, struggled with similar issues of noncontinuous streetscapes and vacant ground-floor spaces that hadn’t been leased yet,” Korte said. 

A 35-acre riverwalk was built in the Confluence in its first phase of development. The park managed to connect properties easier than streets, and Korte said Boston should look to achieve something similar in terms of connectivity and resiliency with the Harborwalk as developers look further east.  

“Boston has the opportunity to extend the Harborwalk around the Marine Industrial Park, connecting large sites like those in the Dry Dock area back to the public realm and simultaneously design a piece of resilient infrastructure to protect South Boston,” she said. 

To hear more from Davis, Korte and other leading voices of the Seaport, head to Bisnow’s The Rise of the Seaport event April 10 at The Seaport Hotel.