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How Boston’s Seaport District Remained Strong During The Pandemic

Boston's Seaport District maintained momentum during Covid.

It has been called Boston’s hottest neighborhood, but just like countless locations across the country, Boston’s upscale Seaport District has had to adjust to the cold realities of Covid-19. According to people closely involved with the area, an embrace of flexible and collaborative solutions helped them weather the disruption and come out feeling optimistic.

The Seaport District is a former industrial area that was redeveloped over the past decade into a 23-acre mixed-use destination. Abandoned warehouses were replaced with thousands of housing units and the area now also is home to entertainment, hospitality and corporate tenants. 

Key commercial real estate players in the neighborhood convened at a Bisnow event in Boston this summer to discuss how the Seaport District maintained momentum during the pandemic. Led by moderator Cecilia Gordon, a director and partner at law firm Goulston & Storrs, panelists representing the Seaport’s hospitality, entertainment and retail segments said they came to view the crisis as an opportunity to rethink some old ways of doing business and to work as a team. 

“I think this is the best reset for our industry that we ever had because everybody is starting at ground zero,” said Michael Jorgensen, managing director of the soon-to-open Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport. 

Jorgensen’s outlook is bullish for an executive overseeing the launch of a 1,054-guest-room hotel while the hospitality industry remains very much in recovery mode. The key, he said, is to come up with innovative solutions that will help people feel comfortable about coming to stay and visit.

“If you're a creative organization and you fashion yourself as innovative, then I think you're going to want to get back together as quickly as possible because I think that's how people work,” he said. 

Omni is taking steps to protect guest’s health such as by displaying QR codes throughout the hotel that will allow guests to order from any of its half-dozen restaurants and have their bagged dinner delivered to their doors, à la DoorDash or Uber Eats. Guests can use the same app to make contact-free reservations at other hotel amenities, such as its swimming pool. In theory, that should help prevent any area in the hotel from becoming overly crowded.

“The whole notion of people gathering has been really rethought and at least in the short term, those are the things we're doing,” Jorgensen said. “I can tell you we have just north of $92M on the books, much of it for 2022. So things are starting to look fairly positive for us.”

Harpoon Brewing, one of the oldest businesses in the district, adjusted to life during the pandemic by addressing patrons’ health concerns.

“There's a heightened sensitivity to anything that presents itself as non-hygienic and crowded, and as an operator, attention to detail has never been more important,” Harpoon President Charles Storey said.

Outdoor spaces are critical to providing a sense of safe space for guests, he said, noting that customers embraced Harpoon’s outdoor beer garden during the pandemic.

Designers of developments like the Seaport are taking a fresh look at incorporating open space into their plans, said Jorge Mendoza, managing director for architecture firm KPF. Among its work at the Seaport, KPF was responsible for Echelon Seaport, a mixed-use, mixed-income residential development in the area. 

In addition to large spaces that can safely contain groups, he said that “semi-private public spaces” such as terraces and balconies are also popular. But whether a large courtyard or intimate balcony, these solutions require stakeholders to think outside of the box. 

“A lot of the work that we're doing nowadays is focused on the whole notion of flexibility, adaptability and so forth,” Mendoza said. “It requires the minds of architects, designers, planners and clients. Everyone's putting their thoughts into it because it's a collaborative process.”

Of course, adding or repurposing outdoor space is not always an option. Many businesses in the Seaport stayed afloat by adapting to videoconferencing technologies. That way, they could offer virtual services to patrons who weren’t even present at their physical locations. 

“I didn't know that wine tastings, yoga classes or everything imaginable could be delivered online,” said Tinchuck Ng, managing director and head of investments for investment management firm Cottonwood Group, a major player in the neighborhood. “Virtual events allowed us on the sales side, as well as in the restaurants, to keep the activities going during Covid.”

Harpoon’s Storey said this approach worked well for his brewery, too, when it began to offer virtual beer tastings during the pandemic. The beermaker’s fan base has been receptive to the approach.  

“It has been great,” Storey said. “I'm surprised actually how well it has worked.”

The Seaport’s ability to adapt and move forward is an encouraging sign for other cities as well, Cecilia Gordon suggested. The past 10 years have seen a boom in urban-core neighborhood redevelopment such as Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard, and she said the Seaport shows that these new developments have staying power.

But even as some businesses have successfully pivoted to interacting with their customers via Zoom, several panelists noted that vehicle traffic is picking up in the neighborhood. That is an encouraging sign that shoppers and diners are returning, they said. But they added that it is a reminder the Boston Seaport needs to do more to address long-simmering concerns about traffic congestion for its thousands of residents, employees and guests.

“Everything that is happening here in the Seaport is very exciting,” Jorgensen said. “And I can tell you that things seem better because I couldn't find a parking space downstairs today. So, people are coming back to the Seaport.”

This article was produced in collaboration between Goulston & Storrs and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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