In Sullivan Square, big changes coming before the BPDA this week

In Sullivan Square, big changes coming before the BPDA this week

By Catherine Carlock

A low-lying industrial area in Charlestown — an area just a few miles from downtown yet far enough off the beaten path that it’s home to a pub called the Tavern at the End of the World — is poised for major transformation ahead of a crucial city vote this Thursday.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency, in its second board meeting this month, is set to discuss two projects — a 22-story apartment tower on Mystic Avenue just north of Sullivan Square and a three-building lab and apartment complex off Roland Street on the west side of Interstate 93 — and PLAN: Charlestown. The neighborhood planning initiative will guide development of some 18 million square feet of new space and more than 6,000 residential units, but has drawn opposition from neighborhood residents and elected officials, including City Councilor Gabriela Coletta and State Representative Daniel Ryan.

PLAN: Charlestown has much to like, Coletta said, including a suggested three-mile green loop around the neighborhood, a focus on climate resiliency, and commitments to affordable housing and open space. But proposed height allowances in a corridor between Rutherford Avenue and I-93, which the plan outlines as stepping up from 90 feet along the corridor to 150 feet and then to 280 feet along the highway, “is simply too dense for what Charlestown could responsibly absorb,” Coletta said. While many residents agree growth is necessary to address the city’s housing crisis, Coletta said, she has received about 350 letters opposing building heights and density.

“In this planning process, we were supposed to be setting a ceiling,” Coletta said. “The ceiling far exceeds anything the Charlestown community thought we would be getting.”

BPDA Director Arthur Jemison recognizes the opposition from both Coletta and Ryan, but said PLAN: Charlestown strikes a balance between needed growth and protecting a historic neighborhood. The plan included a community needs assessment, he said, and also reduced some allowed heights and removed the Bunker Hill Mall as a “growth area.”

The BPDA told a number of developers their projects had to wait for approval until the planning ran its course — and that they had to be prepared to accept changes to their projects that came out of the process, Jemison said. The One Mystic Ave. project, for example, ended up cutting 192 residential units and seven stories from its initial proposal.

“There are a number of projects, two of which will be at the board, which have had to make very significant changes in scope in order to accommodate what neighbors in the plan say they want development to look like in that area,” Jemison said. “We’ve had a really good dialogue. There’s been give and take, and we think we have the right balance.”

Sullivan Square was named a growth area in Imagine Boston 2030, a citywide master plan released by the Walsh administration in 2017, and in recent years has seen a string of major development proposals. Those include The Flatley Co.’s six-building, 1.8 million-square-foot residential, lab, and hotel project at 425 Medford St. along the Mystic River next to the Schrafft’s building, The Fallon Co.’s 802,000-square-foot, two-building lab campus at 60-66 Cambridge St. along I-93, and a master planning process for Bunker Hill Community College. The city is also studying two development proposals for a swath of parking lots adjacent to the college. That’s on top of Hood Park, the 20-acre former dairy complex (with its iconic smokestack) along Rutherford Ave. where a major redevelopment is already well underway.

“There’s so much that’s happening all at once,” Coletta said.

Many of the proposed heights in PLAN: Charlestown came as a surprise to Amanda Zettel, president of the Charlestown Preservation Society, who has spent the past four years participating in the planning process. The density and height feels “supersized” for a small neighborhood, she said.

“It’s incredibly overwhelming,” Zettel said. “We are one square mile.”

Beyond PLAN: Charlestown on Thursday evening, the BPDA board will hold a public hearing and likelyapprove One Mystic Ave., a 22-story, 503-unit residential tower proposed by an affiliate of Fulcrum Global Investors LLC. Fulcrum did not respond to a message seeking comment.

On the other side of the highway, off Cambridge Street near the Tavern at the End of the World, real estate development firm Rise has assembled a 4.4-acre site, home to a mix of vacant properties and active businesses, including an auto repair shop, paper manufacturer, and other offices. Rise plans a three-building lab and residential project with just under an acre of open space.

The largest planned building is a nine-story, 605,300-square-foot lab at a former industrial brewery site at 40 Roland St., with architects CBT incorporating the former brewery’s brick façade into the lab building. Rise also plans two six-story apartment buildings with a combined 126 units, while keeping an existing property at 24 Roland St.

The apartment buildings have financing lined up, while Rise is still in conversations with lenders for the lab project, said Rise cofounder Jim Grossman. Lab lending has slowed in the region of late, as demand for such space has dropped dramatically from highs seen following the COVID-19 pandemic. But Grossman is optimistic: he views the heavily industrialized zone as an emerging “tough tech” cluster that could appeal to robotics, advanced manufacturing, green tech, and other lab tenants that don’t necessarily want to pay the premium rents of Kendall Square.

The number of developments proposed simultaneously surrounding Sullivan Square and the neighboring areas is “almost a little bit analogous to the Seaport,” Grossman said.

Proposing a major project at the same time the city was undertaking a planning initiative for the area allowed the BPDA and developers to consider their combined impact, and to work together on community benefits such as a privately funded shuttle service to the T, Grossman said.

“The planning process the BPDA did was incredibly respectful to the existing fabric of Charlestown,” Grossman said. “(The plan) is incredibly respectful to preserving what should be preserved.”

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