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Office Owner Sues Boston Zoning Board Over Rejected Lab Conversion Plan

The vacant office building at 69-71 A St. in South Boston.

A Boston office owner trying to capitalize on the region's life sciences repositioning craze is suing the city's Zoning Board of Appeal, hoping a judge allows its unfinished conversion project to proceed. 

The Council on International Educational Exchange, a study abroad nonprofit, is appealing the Zoning Board of Appeal’s September decision regarding its 45K SF, five-story office building at 69-71 A St.

CIEE had a one-time partnership with Phase 3 Real Estate Partners to convert CIEE's vacant office building into a life sciences-ready facility in an attempt to capitalize on immense lab demand. Phase 3 Real Estate Partners is no longer involved with the project and is not connected in any manner to the lawsuit.

The ZBA denied CIEE’s appeal during its Aug. 31 meeting, following testimony by residents concerned about noise from mechanical systems, obstructed views and a life sciences use in a residential corridor. The ZBA's denial was formally issued in mid-September, and CIEE filed its suit, which was first reported by Universal Hub, in Suffolk Superior Court last week. 

“I think every one of us who lives in a residential district has to think about what would you do, what would you say, if a research lab and a manufacturing lab topped up abutting to you?” ZBA Chairwoman Christine Araujo said in the August meeting.

CIEE said in a statement Thursday it held numerous meetings with community stakeholders since November 2020 and made several commitments regarding light and noise mitigation from the minor lab use subject to the ZBA's approval of its repositioning. It also claimed the ZBA did not give adequate time for CIEE's presenters to put forth arguments as they were muted before the Board made its "unreasonable, capricious, arbitrary" decision. 

Mintz associate Michael Molstad, an attorney for CIEE in the suit, declined to comment, and a representative for the ZBA declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Maine-based CIEE purchased the 69-71 A St. property in 2018 for its Boston headquarters, and builders added two mass timber stories above the brick shell of a former rivet factory.

CIEE last year reduced its workforce by more than 75%, and Molstad wrote in the suit the group is unable to occupy the completed property. The owner said it has been unable to secure an office lease but has identified life sciences entities interested in occupying the building. 

Residents of the adjacent Port 45 condo building voiced opposition to the project during the August meeting, objecting to adjusted rooftop mechanicals that they claim would produce noise and obstruct their natural lighting. CIEE said the building’s 13-foot-tall rooftop mechanicals would not be raised, but residents claimed new buffers to improve the rooftop aesthetic and reduce noise would sit approximately 21 feet from some of their windows.

The battle is one of the first regarding a lab conversion in Boston, where developers both small and large have slated millions of SF of office inventory for life sciences repositioning. City councilors and community members have expressed concerns about research facilities getting quietly built in their neighborhoods, prompting a City Hall committee hearing on the subject over the summer. 

The 69-71 A St. property has been a flashpoint in the discussion, as Port 45 residents levied complaints about potential rooftop mechanicals during a spring public comment process.

CORRECTION, OCT. 20, 9:10 A.M. ET: Phase 3 Real Estate Partners is no longer involved in the 69 A St. project and is not connected in any manner with CIEE's lawsuit. 

UPDATE, OCT. 14 2:10 P.M. ET: This story has been updated with comments from the Zoning Board of Appeal and CIEE.