Lab Conversion Spree Runs Up Against Local Concerns At Boston Council Hearing
As the life sciences industry’s presence grows in Boston, many of the city’s residents are growing anxious about how quickly — and quietly — many office buildings are being turned into labs.
During a hearing Tuesday of the Boston City Council’s Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation, city councilors and community representatives shared their concerns surrounding the office-to-lab conversions sprouting up in their neighborhoods, including the loud rooftop mechanical systems the buildings need, the lack of transparency about what is studied in the buildings and whether the explosion of new construction will mean new, high-paying jobs for locals.
“There is more public engagement when an applicant wants to get a liquor license than there is to open a lab in the city of Boston,” Fort Point Neighborhood Association Board Member Tom Ready said.
Approximately 3M SF of offices are being converted to lab uses in Boston, which would increase the city’s existing life sciences inventory by more than 50%, according to a Colliers Q2 2021 lab report. Among the major office conversions planned are BioMed Realty’s 601 Congress St. in the Seaport and 321 Harrison St., in the South End, both in the district of City Councilor Ed Flynn, who requested the hearing alongside At-Large Councilor Michael Flaherty.
They and the other members of the planning committee said at the hearing that they welcome lab conversions to bring balance to the sluggish office market. The conversions are happening not just because of the demand of life sciences companies, but because office tenants renewing leases are largely reducing their footprint in the age of hybrid work, and elimination of occupied space hurts Boston’s tax base, Flaherty said Tuesday.
Life sciences also demands more in-person work than remote office environments, which leads to thriving retail, hospitality and retail communities, Flaherty said.
Councilors said they want to ensure residents in the labs' communities have employment opportunities at the facilities. Statewide, the life sciences industry is expected to add 20,000 employees by 2024, according to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation. MassBio Executive Vice President Zach Stanley touted foundation programs raising STEM awareness for students as young as elementary-school age, but didn’t downplay councilors’ concerns.
“If we have 20,000 to 40,000 new jobs to fill in the life sciences industry in the next five years, that’s an amazing opportunity,” Stanley said. “But I also view it as somewhat of a crisis. Right now, we don’t know where those people are going to come from.”
The hearing was hatched after a February City Council meeting in which councilors shared complaints they had heard from residents whose homes were directly abutting office-to-lab projects. Speakers Tuesday pointed to a 45K SF office-to-lab project by Genesis and Phase 3 Real Estate Partners at 69 A St. in South Boston as emblematic of conversion concerns.
The project received stinging feedback in February from neighbors who complained about potentially noisy and view-blocking rooftop mechanicals at the structure initially conceived as an office building. Residents during a public comment period Tuesday doubled-down on noise, sightline and pollution complaints.
Rooftop mechanical systems required by life sciences users can rise more than 30 feet, and don’t count toward the building’s official height when not enclosed, complicating the planning and community feedback process, officials said.
Boston Planning and Development Agency Planning Director Lauren Shurtleff said the BDPA doesn’t want a lab’s rooftop mechanical systems visible in residential neighborhoods, such as across the street from a row of triple-decker homes. Multiple BPDA representatives said they have discussions with planners about the mechanicals, but a solution hasn’t yet emerged. Ready also suggested zoning updates to ensure more resident engagement and height formulas to include rooftop mechanical systems.
Neighbors in residences surrounding the 69 A St. project also expressed concern about what materials would be stored at the lab and emergency measures should a spill or release of chemicals occur. But representatives for the Boston Public Health Commission testified Tuesday that all labs must meet a high level of regulation from numerous federal, state and city agencies.
The BPHC requires labs to compile annual reports and incident reports and the Boston Fire Department conducts both scheduled and unannounced inspections, BPHC Community Initiatives Director Leon Bethune said. The organization only governs labs once they obtain planning and zoning approval.
“For companies that receive funding from investors, they need to show their records in terms of what they’re doing within these labs,” Bethune said. “All these regulations help enforce that and help convey to potential funders and investors that they’re doing what they need to do.”
Officials also explained the safety level of labs in Boston, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s four-level measure of biosafety, which includes requirements for containment of biological materials.
Boston includes seven BSL-3 labs across area universities and medical facilities, Bethune said. Microbes in a BSL-3 lab can cause serious or lethal disease through respiratory contamination, such as bacteria that cause tuberculosis, according to the CDC. Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories is the cit’s only BSL-4 facility, according to Bethune. The lab’s research includes Covid, Ebola, HIV/AIDs and Zika virus, according to its website.
The BSL-3 and BSL-4 facilities are expensive to operate, Bethune said, and there are none in Boston's development pipeline, according to the CDC's tracker for those facilities, Shurtleff said.
Officials have investigated incidents at existing labs ranging from mouse bites, needle sticks, cuts and Covid false-positive tests, but no incidents rising to a public health concern, Bethune said in response to a councilor’s question.
NAIOP Massachusetts Vice President of Policy & Public Affairs Vice President Anastasia Nicolaou, who testified on behalf of the development industry, said more dialogue to neighbors to give them confidence in their safety is needed.
"The neighborhoods need to know what’s actually going in. I wouldn’t want anything to go up that I don’t understand," Nicolaou said. "We really are dealing with very safe, very highly regulated buildings. They answer to the federal government, the state, their operations also answer at the city level. The operators of these buildings want them to be safe as well. They do not want to have to report any incidents to the Public Health Commission."
Flynn said he was satisfied with those answers in regard to the public's safety, and it remains to be seen how many resources the city will devote to needed outreach.
"That type of information is helpful to the residents," he said. "I just think we all, myself included, need to do a better job of educating the residents of the importance of life sciences in the city of Boston."