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Boston's Waterfront Housing Market Past, Present and Future

Here's the latest installment of Bates By the Numbers, a weekly feature by Boston real estate agent David Bates that drills down into the Hub's housing market to uncover those trends you would not otherwise see. Follow him on Twitter and check out his ebook, Context: Nine Key Condo Markets, 2.0.

Kevin Ahearn has more than 30 years of experience in Boston real estate. His firm, Otis & Ahearn, has five Boston offices and has represented several of the biggest condo developments on the city's waterfront, including the Intercontinental and one coming up on the Greenway. I spoke with Kevin recently to get some insights into the waterfront market.

Can you tell me a little about the history of the waterfront market?
It's probably one of the more mature condominium housing areas in the city because the city administration in the '70s deeded a number of the warehouses along Commercial Street and it started the renovation of those into lofts. So it precedes a lot of the development activity downtown. Then, you had a number of luxury developments—Lewis Wharf, Union Wharf. The waterfront led the market in the '70s price-point wise: it was the most expensive place to live in the city in the 70s.

The waterfront was more expensive than Back Bay?
Yes, in the '70s it was more expensive than Back Bay. …The appeal of that period of time was walk to work, if you work in the central business district. You may have been able to get a view of the water or Harbor and it was convenient to the North End; and those things even more so today are very germane and important to living on the waterfront.

Is the waterfront buyer different from Back Bay?
It traditionally has been, but it seems to be more of a crossover buyer than it has been in the past.

What caused waterfront prices to come down?
What happened was the bifurcation of the city by the Big Dig, which disrupted the quality of life and lifestyle. It was not a fun place to live while the Big Dig was happening for 15 years.

And what has happened more recently?
After the initial phase of development that occurred in the '70s, there wasn't a lot that happened for a very long time, other than Rowes Wharf; that was 1986-1987. More recently, you had this major development activity—500 Atlantic Avenue, the Intercontinental, Battery Wharf—which has helped build out along the water and build out the neighborhood to augment what is already there from a service standpoint in the North End.

You've said that the waterfront is in the midst of a new chapter. Is that because the Big Dig has been dug?
It's not only that the Big Dig is done, but that the Greenway is completed and looks great. It's a fabulous asset to the city now. That's gotta be stated. The other thing that has to be factored in is that it's now a gateway to the Seaport. So, you're going to have a lot of activity over there, but waterfront proper gets the benefit of what's going on in the Seaport and what will happen at the Harbor Garage.

What are some of the other attractions of living in waterfront proper?
Columbus Park is probably one of the best open space areas in the city …The public market over on Hanover Street…You've got the Fort Point Channel, which is being developed into a water activation area and will get barges, restaurants, bars, and maybe sailing lessons within the confines of the bridge. So that's going to be another big amenity and attraction along with the Tea Party Museum,

Do you think the Seaport will provoke demand for housing and increased prices in the waterfront?
Absolutely. You're in walking distance to South Station, so the build-out of the Seaport will connect very well to waterfront proper and a project the scale of the Harbor Garage towers is going to have an enormous impact on what happens along the edge of the water and that includes housing.

Whats happening in the current waterfront condo market?
Where it lagged over the last 10 to 15 years, it's now starting to catch up. Top sales at Battery Wharf or Burroughs Wharf or Harbor Towers, are starting to play catch up in pricing and get closer to what is going on in Back Bay, but Back Bay still leads the market and probably always will.

Is there a sale out there that sticks out in your mind that reflects the new market.
The Four Seasons had a sale for $2,908 a foot recently. I mean that gets your attention… In waterfront proper, Rowes Wharf,, 1402-1403, sold for $4.85 million [by an Otis and Ahearn agent], a pretty big number downtown. It was $1,726 a square foot, so that's a number that is up there for waterfront prices.
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