Several trends have flourished in the Boston area in the 2010s. Think bike-shares and micromobility in general. Or transit-oriented development and bus lanes. Or the rises in rents and sales prices until certain sums once unheard of seem perfectly normal.
But there were those trends that came and went, and won’t survive the decade. Here are the five most striking.
Once upon a time, micro-apartments and micro-living in general were going to solve the Boston area’s housing crunch. They would provide smaller, sparsely utilitarian units—some under 300 square feet—within buildings that had plenty of amenity space. Basically, adult dorms for the tech class to crash.
Public officials threw their support behind the concept as a way to provide cheaper living space, and private developers vowed to make micro-apartments a key part of new projects.
What happened? Micro in this context had little to do with the rent. It became clear that—whatever the press surrounding this supposed housing messiah—micro-apartments and the odd micro-condo would still go for the sorts of amounts that conventional studios and small one-bedrooms commanded in Greater Boston (i.e., a lot). Plus, while developers might be able to build more micros than regular units, the money still lay in those regular units.
Vestiges of this decade’s micro-apartment trend survive in so-called innovation units, small, utilitarian spaces that pepper amenity-laden buildings. But innovation units are not that common, and they’ve certainly done little to nothing to solve Boston’s housing crunch.
The Innovation District
Don’t look for Boston’s Innovation District on a map, it’s not there anymore—if it ever was, really.
Public officials and some private companies worked tirelessly for a good chunk of the decade to informally designate several blocks of the then-emerging Seaport District as the Innovation District, a regional hub for technology, biotechnology, etc. The idea was to incentivize startups and like-minded firms to cluster and ... something would happen.
Huzzah: there's now some signage in @IDboston to let you know you're in the Innovation District. (& also Fort Point.) pic.twitter.com/MZNdoj9y— Scott Kirsner (@ScottKirsner) July 16, 2012
While many companies did move in, the Seaport area never became the sole incubator it was supposedly supposed to be.
The Innovation District seems in hindsight then as old-fashioned as those AOL discs that used to bring the internet to your mailbox. What happened was that the city and the surrounding region didn’t really need a designated area for innovative companies to commingle. Instead, the area’s tech sector grew more organically and now animates much of Greater Boston’s economy, including its real estate market.
In that, the Innovation District survives as a marketing triumph, if nothing else.
Make no mistake: The Boston region—Boston proper in particular—did build taller in the 2010s. The 742-foot One Dalton and the 685-foot Millennium Tower are proof positive.
But in the decade’s salad days, it looked like the region might actually host towers that would shoot hundreds of feet past those heights. The trend toward what might’ve been called supertalls for the Boston region did not survive (despite the trend really taking off in some U.S. cities, New York in particular).
Resurrected plans in Boston’s Financial District and a proposal in Cambridge’s Kendall Square went nowhere amid financing challenges as well as logistical hurdles—not least how 1,000-foot spires might interfere with flight patterns in and out of Logan Airport.
As the decade ends, then, it looks like One Dalton might be a literal highwater mark for Boston-area development for the foreseeable future. Stay tuned.
That apartment glut
It seems hard to believe now, given the decade’s population growth and the not-unrelated demand for housing, but there was a real worry about five years back that developers were building too many new apartments.
In particular, there was concern that there were too many higher-end apartments going up—and too many larger ones at that, supposedly freezing out single people and smaller families—so much so that those in the know warned of an apartment glut in Greater Boston.
That’s right. Hundreds, maybe thousands of units were going to gape empty; or developers were going to shift them en masse to for-sale condos; or landlords were going to offer more and more tenant incentives, including months of free rent.
That glut never materialized, of course. The population growth and the region’s generally strong jobs market kept pace with the new development, and demand remains more than sufficient to gobble available supply. (Things are slightly different on the for-sale side.) As the decade drifts away, a tenant-benefiting apartment glut seems like so much magical thinking.
Somerville is the New Brooklyn
“The spirit of Brooklyn was in the air,” went a Boston Globe feature in August 2013, one of myriad earlier this decade that grappled with the pressing question of whether the City of Somerville was becoming unusually—maybe uncomfortably—trendy.
It wasn’t necessarily a worry as much an observation. The city was drawing young people in search of cheaper digs and a more casual atmosphere, and quirkier entities and businesses were feeding off that migration. The comparisons to the New York City borough—which became virtually synonymous with hip and hipsters in the 2010s—were probably inevitable.
As it turned out, Somerville wasn’t the new anything. It was just undergoing a change that other cities and towns in the Boston region—and parts of Boston proper—were undergoing too, wherein residential and commercial newcomers arrive and change the local fabric. That is one trend that will survive the decade.