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Boston's Industrial Hub Facing Pressures As City Advances Plan For Its Future

Marking the geographic center of Boston, the Newmarket neighborhood has historically been the city's hub for industrial manufacturing and distribution facilities. 

The neighborhood sits at the nexus of some of the biggest issues the city faces today. The homeless encampments at the Mass and Cass intersection have made frequent headlines as city officials work to solve the issue and make Newmarket feel safer for industrial businesses, and the neighborhood has also been eyed as a location to add much-needed housing to the city. 

With a new planning guide adopted last month and now being implemented into the zoning code, city officials and advocates hope to preserve Newmarket's industrial character while bringing new activity into the neighborhood with advanced manufacturing and life sciences companies.

The Newmarket commuter rail station

“When different developments want to come in and want to build and lay ground here, there’s been a push and pull at different times,” Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Improvement District, told Bisnow.

Last month, the Boston Planning & Development Agency adopted its PLAN: Newmarket, a guide that would maintain the traditional industrial businesses that reside in the neighborhood while bringing in modern industrial uses to further grow the area. These new uses would include advanced manufacturing, life sciences, artist workspaces and studio spaces.

Newmarket's industrial history dates back to the 19th century, with businesses from blacksmiths to piano-makers opening in the neighborhood, and it saw a renaissance in the 1950s with the relocation of food distribution facilities from Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall into the district, according to the plan. Today the neighborhood remains a large industrial area, with its businesses employing more than 25,000 people, according to the Newmarket Business Association. 

“I am excited about advancing this plan to reaffirm Newmarket as one of Boston’s main hubs of economic activity and development,” BPDA Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison said in an Aug. 17 statement. “By using this plan as a guide, I am confident we can enhance this area and strengthen it for Boston’s workforce of today, tomorrow, and beyond.”

A map of the Newmarket district broken up into the arts, core and gateway industrial subdistricts.

The plan would create three zones within the Newmarket district: a core industrial zone, which would preserve the traditional industrial uses present in the area; a gateway industrial zone, which would bring on other uses like advanced manufacturing, life sciences and office; and an arts industrial zone, which would bring light manufacturing and art workspaces.

Denenberg Realty Advisors Senior Vice President John Cremmen, a broker who has worked on industrial sales in the Newmarket area, said he thinks it will take time for the impact of the new plan to materialize. 

"There's a level of uncertainty that people are trying to decipher, and they're just in the middle of getting the zoning approval," he said. "There's a little bit of a stall, and people are trying to figure out what their property should be. Should they spend more money on the building or should they add a floor to it? And what's going to happen over there? It's a little bit in limbo right now with the safety issues."

On Wednesday, the BPDA held a public meeting for the next part of the process:  codifying the plan into the city’s zoning code. One community member named Scott who spoke during the meeting but didn't state his last name said he was dissatisfied with the lack of residential zoning in the area, citing Boston's worsening housing crisis as a reason to open the barriers, according to a recording of the meeting on the BPDA's website.

“There are plenty of other districts on the fringe of Boston that are ripe for these types of uses. Look at Fort Devens, which has become a model for industrial and biotech development,” he said at the meeting. “Those are the districts that should center development from an industrial perspective. But really, housing should be the primary concern in Boston.”

The district historically stayed away from residential because although there is a need for housing in the city, adding new residents to Newmarket could lead to complaints from neighbors about industrial features, such as loud noises and strong smells, potentially pushing businesses away.

"What happens is the businesses would lose and the businesses would move out because residents have a large voice," Sullivan said. "That's really been why, you know, for so many years it's been nonresidential."

Sullivan said the district's industrial market has seen sub-3% vacancy, and the strong demand has made it even more important to preserve these industrial properties in Newmarket. In such a hot market, Sullivan said that some owners have pushed back against the calls to bring on other uses.

An aerial view of industrial properties in the Newmarket area.

"We're seeing pressure from within," Sullivan said. "People want to maximize their property values. [Businesses] worked hard to make this plan work." 

While the area doesn't have much empty land, its older, low-density industrial properties have attracted builders who see them as prime redevelopment opportunities. 

The area has already begun to see some of this activity unfold.

In 2021, the BPDA approved F.W. Webb Co.’s new 63K SF redevelopment of 55-158 Hampden St. into a warehouse, distribution and retail facility. That same year, City Realty Group proposed a 319K SF life sciences building at 17 Bradston St., stating that the development would help to revamp the "economically viable" district and bring new jobs to the area. The proposal has yet to be approved by the BPDA.

While the plan has neighborhood leaders optimistic about its future, there are ongoing issues in the neighborhood's Mass and Cass intersection, a tent city along Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue that has gotten attention this year because of its worsening situation. Last week, City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson was reportedly robbed in the area during a visit. 

Last month, Mayor Michelle Wu said she plans to introduce an ordinance banning homeless encampments in the area, increase the police presence and limit access to some streets. Also last month, the Newmarket Business Association put out a plan to divert the homeless population away from the district and into Widett Circle, another 24-acre industrial property that was bought by the MBTA for $225M with plans to become a railyard. 

“It has a tremendous impact on the future of the district,” Sullivan said. “The homeless and addiction issues have a tremendous effect on the quality of life. It has an effect on future growth and future development. And are companies willing to come here when there are perceived and actual safety issues?”

Sullivan said that the BID had to hire 24/7 security for businesses in the area that have been affected by break-ins, trespassing and other incidents. The company responded to 29,000 reports last year.

“Things aren’t going to change until we stop allowing open-air drug use and encampments on the street,” Sullivan said. “We put out that plan ourselves. We are in a public health and public safety crisis. We need to address it.”

Abbott Investments President Michael Rothschild, whose company owns multiple properties in Newmarket, said he is optimistic about the area's future.

"It is shaping up to be a truly special neighborhood despite the challenges Mass and Cass has posed these last several years," he said.