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Boston housing development: 6 kinds of sites that could host more of it now

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The city needs homes and fast—luckily, there are several places where apartment and condo buildings would fit nicely

Boston Globe via Getty Images

It is sometimes forgotten, but the surest way for Boston to ease its housing crunch is through building new homes.

Yes, easier said than done, especially given construction and land costs in the city, but at its most fundamental the crunch is due to steadily high demand colliding with often sorry levels of supply.

Here are a few places the city could focus on facilitating development.

Major development sites already on the market. These include the University of Massachusetts’ 20-acre Bayside Expo Center site just east of the JFK/UMass stop and the 18-acre tow lot and municipal storage parcel along Frontage Road near the Southeast Expressway (it’s pictured above). Both of these sites are up for sale as are a number of small locations—each could host a not-insignificant amount of multifamily housing.

An aerial view of a large park space. There are buildings on the perimeter of the park space. Ed Kohler/Flickr

Major development sites where housing is already planned. Then there are the sites where housing is already very much on the table, including at the old 161-acre Suffolk Downs in East Boston and the 15.2-acre former site of the former L Street Power Station on Summer Street in South Boston. Might we suggest maxing out the housing on these sites?

Atop and around transit hubs. This is already happening, of course, with the forest of towers around Back Bay Station perhaps the best example. But what about that tower atop South Station? That has been up in the air—excuse the pun—for years. It looks like 2019 might be the year for it, but...

Over the Mass. Pike and other throughways. Such developments present logistical headaches, but they are doable. There are several either proposed or underway, including a two-tower plan over the Massachusetts Turnpike where it intersects with Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Back Bay and the five-building Fenway Center project.

Along the waterfront. Waterfront development or redevelopment has been one of the meta-themes in the story of the comeback of American cities during the past 25 years or so. Cities nationwide have rezoned or otherwise tweaked the expectations for their waterfronts to repurpose land and buildings, usually to facilitate housing.

David Persson/Shutterstock

Boston kind of did this with the Seaport District, though it ended up facilitating a whole of bunch of ultra-luxury housing. Great for the tax base, but not so great for prospective buyers. What of the waterfront farther north? There is an effort now to rezone much of it to spur development, but that effort faces legal and community opposition.

Any vacant parcel. Boston has quite a few of them, as this Northeastern University study from 2018 made clear. The chart below is from the study.

Officials could make it that much more expensive and difficult for landowners to simply keep these parcels vacant in hopes of government development subsidies or ever higher returns from some far-off sale.

That’s what spurred the development of Millennium Tower, after all. A major New York-area landlord called Vornado Realty Trust had sat on its eventual site in Downtown Crossing for ages. When Vornado’s chairman bragged about doing so, the former Menino administration moved on the company like Grant on Richmond. Vornado ceded control and up went one of the tallest residential buildings in Boston history.

Where else could Boston be building big?