Contact Us

Charlestown Set For Big Changes After City Adopts Controversial Plan

The oldest neighborhood in Boston, Charlestown is finally being thrust into the development spotlight.

The city last week adopted a new planning guide for Charlestown that has unlocked potential for economic development and housing production, though it has faced some high-profile opposition, and the neighborhood has millions of square feet of development that would add housing, labs, office and retail to the historically industrial neighborhood.

An aerial view of Charlestown

The Boston Planning & Development Agency at its Sept. 28 board meeting adopted PLAN: Charlestown, a wide-ranging planning guide that was in the works for four years, and it approved two new projects that will bring over 600 units of housing and new job opportunities to the neighborhood.

The planning guide passed despite opposition from the city councilor representing the neighborhood. Residents have voiced worries that the increased density and height could hurt the charm of the historic neighborhood, and they said the city is relying too much on the MBTA’s struggling transportation system. 

“The city's balancing act is figuring out how much they represent the city's goals of trying to advance different types of development and meet different resident business needs and how much they actually represent the community,” Catamount Management Corp. Vice President Chris Kaneb, who is working on a major development in Charlestown, told Bisnow.

The planning guide is the latest in the city’s efforts to make its planning process more transparent, and it acts as an extension of former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s Imagine Boston 2030, which highlighted Charlestown as a neighborhood with great growth potential.

But the plan has faced vocal opposition. The Charlestown Neighborhood Council wrote a letter to the BPDA objecting to the plan on Sept. 5, citing a lack of community engagement in the process as the main concern.

City Councilor Gabriela Coletta said that the plan, which aims to address sustainability on the waterfront, affordable housing production and open space expansion, still allows density and height that could be too much for the community. 

“The BPDA’s vision of creating a replica of the Seaport is not the vision that is shared by the majority of Charlestown residents and woefully neglects the growing pains related to transportation, basic amenities, public safety and the exclusivity of historically marginalized populations,” Coletta said at the Sept. 28 BPDA meeting.

Kaneb said that the developer's 20-acre Hood Park project faced similar pushback from residents who were concerned about the height and density across the campus.

“There is no square inch of dirt in Boston that hasn't already been developed over the past 400 years,” Kaneb said. “Everything that's getting developed has changed of some sort. I don't want to diminish the fact that people have concerns that I may or may not agree with at any given moment. Do I personally feel that what has been approved with PLAN: Charlestown was sort of disregarding concerns or that they did it too quickly? No, I don’t.”

Charlestown's Sullivan Square was one of six neighborhoods identified in the Imagine Boston 2030 plan, which encourages city neighborhoods to transform into mixed-use hubs that can sustain employment and housing growth.

A rendering of Rise's approved 40 Roland St. in Charlestown's Sullivan Square.

Sprinkled with surface parking lots and industrial buildings that can be redeveloped, and benefiting from its connection to other communities through its major transportation corridors, Charlestown has begun to see interest from developers looking to bring on massive projects across the neighborhood.

Before the recent boom in interest, Catamount Management Corp. began work in 2018 on Hook Park, revitalizing the former dairy manufacturing complex in Sullivan Square into a mixed-use campus with 1.8M SF of lab and office space, 335 residential units, 100K SF of retail and 150 hotel rooms, according to its website.

The Hood Park redevelopment started with three core buildings and transformed into a master plan, which the company worked with the city on to bring more economic development to the historically industrial area, including a mix of tenants in tech, life sciences, consulting and more retail space to bring residents to the area.

“We renovated those, leased them out and began the growth of a campus with new companies ... and new employees, people who had never been coming to Charlestown,” Kaneb said. “So these core buildings were the beginning of really an effective adaptive reuse of an entire 20-acre campus.”

After the Hook Park project took shape, other developments began to move forward like Related Beal’s 420 and 440 Rutherford Ave., known as the Charlestown Labs. The two-building campus, standing blocks away from Hook Park, consists of two lab buildings totaling 167K SF that will deliver in the fourth quarter of 2024, according to its website.

In June, the Boston Housing Authority and Mayor Michelle Wu held a groundbreaking ceremony for the first phase of Leggat McCall Properties and Joseph J. Corcoran Co.'s $1.4B Bunker Hill housing development in Charlestown, expected to bring on 2,699 units of mixed-income housing with over 1,000 set aside as deeply affordable. Unlike the other two developments, this affordable housing project is located deeper in the neighborhood, on its historic main street.

Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston Housing Authority celebrate the groundbreaking for Phase 1 of the Bunker Hill housing redevelopment in Charlestown.

“Today’s groundbreaking shows what’s possible when we use every tool as a City and partner across different sectors and levels of government to ensure residents have access to safe, affordable, and sustainable housing,” Wu said in a release about the groundbreaking. “I’m grateful to all of our partners for their critical work and look forward to the completion of this redevelopment.”

Other major projects proposed in the neighborhood include a bid from Onyx Group and Dream Collaborative for a 757-unit affordable housing development for the city-owned Austin Street parking lots, as well as The Flatley Co.’s 1.7M SF 425 Medford St. master plan.

The BPDA approved two new developments in the neighborhood’s Sullivan Square, which acted as the focal point for the plan, at the same Sept. 28 meeting. One project is Fulcrum Global Investors’ 1 Mystic Ave., a 360K SF, 503-unit development just a five-minute walk from the Sullivan Square MBTA station. The project is planned to bring on 100 units of affordable housing. The other project is Rise’s 40 Roland St., a 753K SF, three-building project that will include life sciences, 126 residential units and retail space.

Herby Duverné, co-founder of Rise, said that the 40 Roland St. project’s approval was achieved in part by lining it up with PLAN: Charlestown. He said he feels good about moving forward with the project and the impact it will have on the area because of the new planning guide.

“The same day that the plan was approved, our project also moved along because of the fact that it was much aligned to the vision of Charlestown and to the vision of the plan,” Duverné said. “We could not have it better in terms of knowing that, as we're spending time developing our parcels, we're going to line up directly with the plan.”

The neighborhood has been one of a few that hasn't seen the same development wave like the Seaport or Downtown. Duverné said Rise was attracted to the area because of its access to the highway and the Orange Line, which makes it the perfect place for a major transit-oriented economic hub.

The project is a part of Rise’s larger Sullivan Square redevelopment initiative, which includes 828K SF of lab and office space, 1,235 residential units and 87K SF of retail space across three separate projects. The 40 Roland St. project will include 126 of Rise’s 1,235 proposed units, with 20% of them deemed affordable under the city’s inclusionary development policy.

“From that, 20% of that is going to be affordable housing,” Duverné said. “We set the tone way before the 20% the mayor has been pushing for. So from the beginning, what we said as an organization is, ‘That's the way we've got to be.’”

Despite the pushback from some community groups and officials, other groups like the Charlestown Resident Alliance have shown more support for the development plans. The group has partnered with Leggat McCall on its Bunker Hill housing development, touting the project as a step forward for the neighborhood’s housing affordability.

And developers say the plan helps to grow a part of the city that has begun to see massive pressures as the housing crisis rages on and access to more job opportunities becomes crucial. 

“There are better uses than surface parking lots,” Kaneb said. “That was not lost on the folks who worked on the 2030 plan, PLAN: Charlestown, neighborhood residents, private developers, state agencies and the MBTA. I think they're all recognizing that this is an unusually accessible and developable area for the city of Boston.”