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Patience Will Pay Off For Long-Awaited Seaport Grocery Store

In the yearslong quest for a full-scale Seaport grocery store, the market conditions are finally primed. 

Seaport residents have pursued a full-scale urban grocery store like this Whole Foods in New York's Lower East Side for years.

“It’s our No. 1 requested retailer that we need to deliver to the neighborhood,” WS Development Vice President of Leasing Todd Norley said. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for one.” 

Despite being a symbol of Boston’s rising global status, the Seaport is not devoid of critics. Boston’s newest neighborhood has been described in the past as having the charm of a suburban Dallas office park and being akin to “community theater Blade Runner.”

Snark aside, the most focus has been placed on jump-starting its retail scene to match that seen in neighborhoods like Back Bay. Just as the glassy towers along Seaport Boulevard represent a waterfront neighborhood on the rise, many argue a grocery store would represent a neighborhood that is livable. 

“The people who develop those kinds of retail entities such as a Whole Foods generally do thorough and extensive analysis,” Northeastern University Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy Director Ted Landsmark said. “The decision not to invest in developing a supermarket yet is the kind of decision that knowledgeable supermarket developers make on the basis of who is actually living there.”

The closest grocery store to the neighborhood, a Roche Bros. nearly a mile away in Downtown Crossing, opened in 2015 at the restored Burnham Building. Originally 25K SF, the store has been a success and even added 10K SF in an expansion a year after opening. Some point to its growth as why the Seaport is more than ready for its own grocery.

Rendering of Seaport Square retail

“Roche Bros. going to Downtown Crossing is something where someone went where others may have been reluctant, and they’re an overwhelming success,” JLL Managing Director Chris Angelone said. “Having a grocer doesn’t mean it has to be a 60K SF sort of traditional model. It can be a 15-30K SF grocer that fits the needs of an urban environment.”

WS Development first came to the Seaport as a retail development partner to Boston Global Investors and Morgan Stanley in 2007. It became the master developer of Seaport Square in 2015 following a $359M investment in the remaining 12.5 undeveloped acres at the project. 

Retailers like L.L. Bean, ShowPlace Icon Theatre and the neighborhood’s first CVS Pharmacy — previously just as desired as a grocery store — have opened in the Seaport under WS Development’s purview. 

As for the grocery store, WS argues the neighborhood has the population density that can support it. It just needs to find the right real estate.

“It has evolved since I first got here a few years ago when the residential density was not what it is today,” WS Senior Vice President Yanni Tsipis said. “That density box has been checked and is no longer a negating factor, whereas two years ago that was more of a concern. Now, it’s getting the right floor plate.”

Some still argue there are not enough residential units being added to sustain retail. Office development outpaces residential projects, and a Fort Point neighborhood activist routinely takes to Twitter to say residential density is falling short of the 5,000 to 8,000 residential units originally envisioned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (the predecessor to the Boston Planning & Development Agency) in a 1999 neighborhood master plan.

But as the neighborhood has evolved into a de facto Financial District on the water as well as a burgeoning luxury residential enclave, some say traditional residential requirements for retail are no longer as important.

Critics argue residential density in the neighborhood ends in the warehouse-laden Fort Point and not enough is being built in the neighboring Seaport.

“I don’t think there’s a tried-and-true rule as to what type of residential population you need to justify a grocery store,” Angelone said. “In my opinion, I think the Seaport’s combination of daytime population plus its residents justifies a grocery store today, and it will do well. It’s just a question of who is going to do it.”

The overall residential-office discrepancy is not as pronounced as some may think. While 3.2M SF of office has been built in the Seaport since 2010, residential is not far behind with 3M SF being added in the same time period, according to Perry Brokerage Director of Intelligence Brendan Carrol. 

WS contends the neighborhood is keeping pace with residential targets. There are roughly 4,500 residential units completed in the Seaport and 1,500 more expected to hit the market in the next 12 to 18 months, Tsipis said.

The Benjamin and Via at Seaport Square added 832 residential units when they opened in 2017. Cottonwood Management’s Echelon Seaport, which is under construction, will add 733 condos and apartments when it opens in 2020. WS altered its own master plan at the end of 2017 for the remainder of its Seaport development to include more residential space.

“I think the residential density we see today and planned for the future in our and other remaining blocks is very consistent with the planning context, but these things take time,” Tsipis said. “Buildings don’t appear overnight, and one has to be patient and realize a neighborhood grows organically. It’s not like flipping a switch.”