April 2, 2019
March 10, 2019
Boston Wants To Cash In On The Real Estate Centerpiece Of Its Olympic Blunder
Boston may have failed in its quest for the 2024 Olympics, but not all was lost when the city’s bid fell apart in 2015.
The now-abandoned pursuit clued Beantown and its developers in on nearly 60 acres of developable land within walking distance of some of the city’s hottest and most-established neighborhoods.
“We didn’t realize we had a jewel in our midst until the Olympics came about, and suddenly it was ‘Wow, there’s Widett Circle,” NAIOP Massachusetts CEO Tamara Small said.
Widett Circle is a teardrop-shaped industrial property wedged between downtown Boston, the South End and South Boston. Cordoned off by Interstate 93 to the west and the MBTA Cabot Yard train depot to the east, Widett’s collection of food purveyors, called the New Boston Food Market, is difficult to reach.
For decades, that has kept Widett an industrial zone only visited by truck drivers who know its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it access point on the I-93 frontage road.
As Boston has boomed over the last decade, its commercial real estate community has started to reimagine this slice of industrial grit as a possible development treasure after the plan to turn it into an Olympic stadium flamed out. Land in the region’s hottest neighborhoods like the Seaport and Kendall Square is largely spoken for, so developers’ eyes have pivoted south.
With developers beginning to invest more along Fort Point Channel and “Dot Ave.” in the direction of Widett, it appears the long-ballyhooed idea of developing the site’s time is now.
Boston officials are pursuing a planning initiative for Dorchester Avenue to enable more density along Widett Circle’s eastern edge. Mayor Martin Walsh has been vocal in the past about turning Widett Circle into a new, transformative neighborhood for the city.
He is also pushing to sell 18 acres of city-owned land on the northern end of the Widett Circle area to a developer. Some in Boston real estate circles think the sale would lay the foundation for a stadium for the city's Major League Soccer team, the New England Revolution.
The Kraft Group, owners of the Revolution and New England Patriots, have tried for years to move the team from Gillette Stadium into a new, smaller venue closer to Boston.
Massachusetts Sen. Nick Collins (D-First Suffolk) and Rep. David Biele (D-Fourth Suffolk) have pushed the MBTA to consider leasing air rights to developers willing to deck and build above the Cabot Yard train tracks, also in the Widett area.
Within Widett Circle proper to the south, the New Boston Food Market is considering a sale of its 18.5-acre property that real estate analysts expect could top $200M.
Numerous local developers have shown interest in the property, and many in Boston’s real estate community view Samuels & Associates as a front-runner in those talks.
The developer is behind most of the Fenway neighborhood’s transformation, and it is making moves near Widett at Washington Village, a planned $400M mixed-use development in partnership with Core Investments.
Samuels declined to comment to Bisnow, as did Cushman & Wakefield Vice Chair Mike Joyce, whose firm, along with HFF, is representing the New Boston Food Market. The New Boston Food Market didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Whether it is an Olympic stadium, a soccer stadium or a mixed-use gateway to the city, developers have salivated over project concepts and the idea of turning Widett into Boston’s next hotbed of construction. When joined with the neighboring industrial properties and rail yards, it is a 60-acre front door to Boston.
But not everyone agrees on what the welcome mat should say.
Turning Real Estate Grit Into Gold
Land in Boston is at a premium, especially close to downtown. It is how developers can still command more than $1K/SF for condos overlooking on-ramps to I-93 in the South End and why industrial neighborhoods are vanishing, only to be resurrected as mixed-use hubs.
Developers are now looking at industrial sites like the Allston rail yards and the Edison Power Plant as opportunities to redevelop into real estate cash cows, and talks have ramped up in recent months over Widett Circle joining that list.
The most public-facing part of the Widett area is a city tow lot where many Bostonians have had to visit and fork over the $108 fee to liberate a car.
Since the 1960s, Widett Circle has also been home to a mix of food wholesalers after they were pushed from Quincy Market. Widett and the adjacent Newmarket neighborhood became Boston’s new industrial hub.
“On the one hand, you might look at that collection of spaces and wonder how anyone can develop there, but you’re seeing some serious and thoughtful consideration of transforming that urban fabric into something special,” said A Better City President and CEO Rick Dimino, who was Boston’s transportation commissioner during the Big Dig. “That’s a pretty envious position for a city to be in.”
When the U.S. Olympic Committee first named Boston as the official U.S. bid city to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, the local organizing committee was tasked with finding a place in space-constrained Boston close enough to downtown for an Olympic stadium.
Widett Circle was the perfect place, with its quick access to downtown and skyline views perfect for primetime TV viewers.
The organizing committee pitched decking over the area’s mix of warehouses and train tracks to house a temporary venue for the games that could either be completely removed or scaled down later into a smaller stadium, potentially for the New England Revolution.
The deck was needed to support the stadium and the new neighborhood planned for the area’s post-Olympics life.
The Boston bid may have failed, but developers still see merit in using the bones of it to transform Widett Circle into Boston’s next hot neighborhood.
The New Boston Food Market currently employs about 900, but if the consortium gets the right price, it would move elsewhere and make way for what will most likely be millions of square feet of mixed-use development.
“As you come around the Southeast Expressway, having that visibility and incredibly close proximity to downtown makes it as desirable for developers as the Seaport once was, because the availability of land to develop now is so scarce,” Newmarket Business Association President Sue Sullivan said. “Anybody who doesn’t have a foothold in the area wants to find one.”
Given how much success National Development has had turning the old Boston Herald headquarters on the other side of I-93 from Widett into the Ink Block mixed-use development, A Better City’s Dimino thinks there is appetite to do something similar in gritty parts of industrial Boston.
“If someone said to me there’s going to be high-end housing next to the Albany Street garage and the expressway, some of us would have scratched our heads and thought maybe you had too many drinks for lunch,” he said.
Getting that kind of return on investment in Widett might be easier said than done.
The city and Boston’s real estate community know the air rights deck wouldn’t come cheap — estimates came in at $1B — or easy. The last successful air rights project in Boston was Copley Place in 1983.
But some now argue the deck concept is only required for parts of the greater Widett Circle area, like the 40-acre Cabot Yards, where the MBTA parks Red Line trains and buses.
“I haven’t heard as much about the deck since the Olympics discussion ended,” Small said. “If you are talking about a deck, it would be a significant investment and not something a developer would take on by themselves.”
Widett Circle is on firm ground, so the winning developer of the New Boston Food Market property won’t need to build a deck for any future project. But connecting the site to its adjoining neighborhoods, separated by I-93 and the train tracks, is going to require infrastructure adjustments.
Roads would need to be reconfigured to improve western access beyond the narrow connector to the interstate frontage road, and any connection to South Boston through Cabot Yards will still require some level of decking. The MBTA isn’t moving, but decking just over that rail portion is a smaller undertaking than the original Olympic vision.
Small added that, if a deck is pursued, it would not be something a developer would independently pay for.
Starting out with a $1B foundation to the new neighborhood means it is more likely a developer like Samuels would build high-end condos, offices and labs to pay off the high infrastructure cost, as opposed to the more affordable housing most public officials have indicated they want to see.
“There could be thousands of affordable housing units — which we need in order to accommodate our city’s rapidly growing population of young professionals, families, and seniors,” Walsh wrote in a 2015 opinion piece about the future of Widett. “This could be a place where all those people — and others — can work, live, play, and thrive.”
Getting Widett Right
If Walsh wants to move forward on his vision for the Widett Circle area, he is going to need to convince Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu.
While the Boston mayor may want to move quickly and capitalize on a hot real estate market, Wu is determined that the City Council takes time and considers a variety of options before supporting whatever it finds to be the best use for the city-owned portion of the greater Widett area.
She is also clear she wants to address environmentalist concerns for the area before moving forward on a high-profile city land sale she has previously labeled a higher-stakes game than the sale of the Winthrop Square parking garage.
“Overall, this is one of the last remaining large parcels in city ownership that could be developed into something significant,” Wu told Bisnow. “The conversation we should have with the community is recognizing how vulnerable Boston is with climate change.”
Wu has stressed the city needs to be more deliberative and consider how the property can play a role in Boston’s storm resiliency efforts, especially since the area is prone to flooding. That has garnered support from environmentalists and neighbors with lingering memories of rampant flooding in the Seaport during the winter of 2018.
Neither Walsh nor representatives with the mayor’s office of economic development were made available for comment. A spokesperson for the mayor pointed Bisnow to review the Imagine Boston 2030 plan, which highlights storm resiliency efforts across the city and calls for flood protection infrastructure as well as climate-ready zoning in the effort to redevelop the neighborhood.
Wu maintains a broader conversation for both the city-owned lot as well as the entire Widett Circle area needs to take place before shovels hit the ground. Whether it is affordable housing or climate change, she said there is an opportunity to solve a lot with the area.
“In every development conversation, there is an interplay among policymakers, planners, the private sector and developers,” she added. “It’s good for everyone when there’s clarity and a shared set of facts of what the constraints are.”
While she didn’t rule out any kind of use for the property, Wu said a lot more information on the area is needed before the city should send out any request for information or request for proposals to developers.
Greater Boston’s life science tenants are insatiable with their space needs, so many predict studies to call for more lab development there, just as with most other parts of the metro area.
Given how home prices continue to soar and the endless stream of speeches from Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker calling for more housing production, housing figures to play some part in Widett's future.
Others have called for making the area a wetland to better control future flooding and rising sea levels, but there is also a chance this is where the Kraft Group will finally get to plant a soccer stadium within Boston city limits.
Whether it's housing, labs or sports, everyone can at least agree on one thing: Widett’s industrial days are numbered.
“If I were a planner and was looking to my gateway to the city, I’d want something that makes people say ‘I want to be there,’” Sullivan said.