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Saving the South Bay Mega-Development in Downtown Boston

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One of the last great undeveloped swaths of land in Boston is showing new signs of life. And we're not talking about the Seaport District.

In 2004, then-Boston Redevelopment Authority director Mark Maloney called the South Bay District "an opportunity to create a vibrant new mixed-use neighborhood in downtown Boston." His comments came in reference to the release of Phase 1 of the South Bay Planning Study. This new neighborhood would sit on 10 acres of vacant property freed up by the reconfiguration of the I-93/MassPike interchange, a component of the Big Dig. The transit-oriented neighborhood is just a five-minute walk from South Station, sitting to the east of Chinatown and to the south of the Leather District.

The planning study envisioned a mixed-use neighborhood of parks, tall office towers, and residences; and soon after its release the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the owner of the property, issued a request for proposals for redeveloping the entire area. A single response was received by a development group calling itself South Bay Partners LLC, proposing a massive mixed-use development anchored by a signature park, indoor skating rink, and 800-foot tower, which would have been the tallest in Boston. In all, the proposal would have included more than 3 million square feet of new development.

Eight years later, the interchange has been reconfigured, but the South Bay neighborhood remains an unfulfilled dream. Instead of the vibrant neighborhood envisioned by the South Bay Planning Study, cars whiz by on the way to the highway. Instead of the high-rise office and apartment buildings, state highway workers decamp from surface parking lots to the mid-rise state office building undergoing renovation at 185 Kneeland Street; office workers and residents of adjacent neighborhoods hurry through the unwelcoming pedestrian environment on their way to other places; and the Veolia steam plant remains on Kneeland Street as an imposing reminder of the area's industrial past.

Instead of the signature open spaces, vacant lots accommodate vagrants and panhandlers who solicit passing motorists for spare change, while nearby a few basketball courts sit largely underutilized. It is a scene out of a decayed urban wilderness that decades of renaissance in Boston have left untouched.

So what happened to the dream of a new mixed-use district? A few things are clear:

· The Turnpike Authority received just one proposal in response to its 2004 RFP. The lack of competition indicates that few developers were willing or able then to take on the redevelopment of an entire neighborhood from the ground up.

· FAA building-height limits, imposed to protect sensitive air space around Logan International Airport, would not allow for buildings at the heights proposed by South Bay Partners and envisioned in the South Bay Planning Study.

· The Veolia Steam Plant, sitting in the middle of the proposed mixed-use district, is privately owned and operational. This gave an outside party an incredible amount of leverage in negotiations with the Turnpike Authority and developers, giving the owners of the steam plant the ability to name their price.

· The layout of buildings and streets envisioned in the South Bay Planning Study included expensive decking over a large area of the enormous highway interchange. This may not be feasible, judging from the appearance of the interchange today, which has drastic grade changes from the front of the site to the back.

But there's still hope that the South Bay Planning Study will come to fruition, perhaps in a slightly different form than previously envisioned. MassDOT, the successor to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, is attempting to revive the plan with a modified approach meant to solve some of the issues that doomed the previous RFP process.

MassDOT recently issued a RFP for just one of the four parcels that comprise the South Bay District, Parcel 25. The RFP states that "MassDOT will require the selected developer of Parcel 25 to coordinate its redevelopment with future plans for the redevelopment of the South Bay Parcels to maximize the benefits to MassDOT, the City of Boston, and the surrounding community. This may include, without limitation, harmonious project design, transportation easements and improvements, and shared open space and public realm elements."

This piecemeal approach would allow the redevelopment of the area to begin before issues related to the Veolia steam plant, building heights, and decking of the interchange are resolved. It has also attracted more interest than the previous RFP, indicating that developers are more willing to take on the development of a single parcel within the new district than commit to build the entire district. Two proposals for Parcel 25 have been received by MassDOT, each for a high-rise residential building within the FAA height limits. They are currently under review by MassDOT.

The South Bay Planning Study from 2004, the Phase I Report, will have to be revisited as a part of the permitting process for any development on Parcel 25. Local zoning, contained in Article 43-8 of the zoning code and dubbed the Chinatown Gateway Special Study Area, requires that "no development plan approval shall be granted pursuant to Section 80C-4 (Standards for Planned Development Area Review Approval) for a PDA in the Chinatown Gateway Special Study Area until such comprehensive plan is completed." On the final page of the Phase I planning study, under a subheading entitled "Achieving the Vision," there is reference to a Phase II study that has yet to be completed.

Perhaps the South Bay District will never be characterized by a single developer, 800-foot tower or indoor skating rinks, but the "opportunity to create a vibrant new mixed-use neighborhood in downtown Boston" is alive and kicking, thanks to the revamped approach being taken by MassDOT and the City of Boston. Stay tuned. — A. Contributor

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