With more than a dozen projects under construction or preparing to break ground soon, the South Boston Waterfront is finally fulfilling the ambitions of so many developers—and the late ex-mayor Tom Menino, who once proposed moving City Hall there—who have glanced across the Fort Point Channel and seen potential.
Menino never decamped city government from its Brutalist offices downtown, but he did rebrand part of the South Boston Waterfront as the Innovation District. Although more commonly known as the Seaport District, the area has nonetheless succeeded in attracting the kind of tech jobs that its futuristic nickname suggests. General Electric announced last year that they’d leave their longtime headquarters in Connecticut for Boston, setting their sights on the Seaport District. Already home to millions of square feet of new office space, the Seaport hardly needed more validation as the epicenter of Boston’s commercial real estate boom. But GE’s intentions also come amid calls for more holistic planning in the rapidly changing Seaport, where shortages of housing and parking threaten to throttle human-scale development in the new neighborhood just as it gets on its feet.
The Seaport District, which comprises about 1,000 acres on the South Boston Waterfront, has long been an urban oddity. Until recently it was a sea of parking lots, rail yards, and muddy, postindustrial wharfs. Just across the Fort Point Channel from downtown Boston, it seemed ripe for rebirth. Things got going in 1991, when Pei Cobb Freed & Partners planted the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse there, paving the way for future development. Rafael Viñoly’s gleaming convention center opened in 2004, along with the public transit route known as the Silver Line, followed two years later by the Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
Commercial development followed. Vertex Pharmaceuticals bought more than one million square feet of lab and office space in a pair of 18-story towers along the waterfront. Last year PricewaterhouseCoopers left Boston’s Financial District for the green-glass office block at 101 Seaport Boulevard, now also home to the U.S. arm of its Swedish builder, Skanska.
Skanska broke ground in July on an oval-shaped building by CBT Architects, departing from the district’s growing forest of boxy office towers. Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 23-acre Seaport Square project, first proposed in 2010, is offering an “urban village” with high-rise housing clustered around landscaped plazas. Elkus Manfredi Architects is behind several projects in the neighborhood—which is also home to its office—most recently 150 Seaport Boulevard, a 22-story condo tower whose glass facade twists and billows like a ship’s sail.
“There were many people who didn’t believe this could be a viable part of Boston,” said principal Howard Elkus, whose latest project is targeting a 2017 groundbreaking. “You’re seeing the early stages of development. It’s hard to believe, given everything that’s going on, but there’s a lot of remaining potential here in the Seaport.”
City plans say more than 25,000 people may live in the Seaport District once it’s all built out (at an unspecified date in the future), which would make it more populous than many better-known Boston neighborhoods including Charlestown and Back Bay. Today, however, it has fewer than 2,000 housing units and largely empties out after business hours. That hasn’t stopped condos from fetching astronomical fees. Last year the area topped Back Bay as the priciest real estate in the city per square foot—a figure somewhat skewed by the sale of four penthouses at developer Fallon Company’s Twenty Two Liberty, which totaled more than $25 million. With GE on the way, city planners and developers now have to pull off a real innovation: How to translate a developer’s playground into an affordable, livable community.