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Boston's Leaders Want More Oversight Over Lab Development Amid Building Boom

Boston city councilors are taking a harder look at the region’s life sciences surge as residents are wary of the proliferating research facilities in their neighborhoods.

Developers are increasingly pivoting building plans to accommodate life sciences tenants, while others are spending hundreds of millions to convert existing office structures in the city’s hottest neighborhoods. Record private and public funding has fueled the need for quicker delivery for emerging companies, and lab conversion announcements have become a near-weekly occurrence.

West Broadway road in South Boston.

City Councilors Wednesday voted to hold an expedited committee hearing to address zoning and community outreach issues surrounding rising life sciences projects in Boston. Councilors and community leaders said this week residents are worried about displacement, proximity to scientific research, job opportunities at the facilities and the cultural fit of such sites in each neighborhood.

City Councilor Ed Flynn requested a hearing Tuesday to address the large volume of life sciences plans around the city, including sites in his Chinatown and South Boston district. As a result of the council vote Wednesday, the city's Committee of Planning, Development and Transportation will take up the zoning and community outreach discussion at a date to be determined.

Flynn took aim at citywide projects in his hearing order, but focused on the 51 Sleeper St. site in Wednesday's virtual meeting, a life sciences development by China-based Nan Fung Life Sciences.

“Because the lab was in an area zoned as restricted manufacturing, it allowed the proponent to bypass a community process, as the project was deemed zoning-compliant,” Flynn said in Wednesday’s meeting.

Nan Fung didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

At-Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty Wednesday doubled down on the need for a longer discussion among city officials.

“We’ve also seen some developers get a little cute too, they put in their (letter of intent) with respect to the BRA that they’re looking to do a commercial building, but they never mention the possibility of a lab space,” Flaherty said, using the former acronym for the Boston Planning and Development Agency. “Direct abutters go up in arms because they thought it was going to be sort of a regular office building and now it’s a lab, and they want to know what’s going to be tested there.”

Changes in letters of intent to capture the lab demand have already occurred at Related’s Kenmore Square redevelopment, under the iconic Citgo Sign, and at 75 Morrissey Blvd., where project head David Raftery submitted plans nixing a residential tower for a 250K SF research and development and office building.

A past rendering of 51 Sleeper St., in Boston's Seaport.

Community leaders like South Boston Neighborhood Development Corp. Executive Director Donna Brown said developers should seek to engage with their communities and be more transparent about what specifically could happen in their projects, rather than hide behind generalities.

“I think that’s what makes people nervous, they don’t know,” Brown said. “It's kind of a vague term when you say lab development, or life sciences work.”

Brown pointed to the joint venture project at 80 West Broadway, where The Matteson Cos. and GFI Partners recently filed plans to build an eight-story research and development building in the parking lot of the neighborhood’s longtime Amrheins restaurant. The project will keep Amrheins intact while building residential space alongside the eight-story building, which would be the tallest in the neighborhood.

Representatives for the companies didn't respond to requests for comment.

Smaller projects within the neighborhood and massive plans along the Seaport’s Fort Point channel will have to integrate with their neighborhood the same way the Gillette factory once did, Brown said. 

“If you talk to South Boston folks who grew up here, so many people, they've either been able to earn extra money to be testers for Gillette, their families were employed,” Brown said. “It was a path to a career. Gillette’s been such an important part of this community. We’d like to see these newcomers be the same kind of employers.”

The community relationship is on the mind of Chinatown residents, where Oxford Properties Group plans to meet with residents next Thursday in a BPDA meeting regarding its own life sciences move, reducing existing plans for a taller office tower at 125 Lincoln St.

Oxford Properties has been in conversations with the Chinatown and Leather District communities for its Lincoln Street build since 2019 and plans to update nearby residents on the types of tenants the site would accommodate, a company spokesman said in a statement Thursday.

Reducing the project's size means less affordable housing funds from the development, and residents want to know if the site’s existing retail tenants would have a chance to return if Oxford pursues a life sciences build-out, Asian Community Development Corp. Executive Director Angie Liou said.

“If they do this new building, what’s the ground floor, what’s the second floor commercial spaces, are those going to be maybe for the banquet space and the barbecue space to go back?” Liou said. “That will be what people’s concerns are.”