As part of the latest, revised plans for the ongoing redevelopment of the Government Center Garage, a single life sciences building is now planned for the east parcel of the project site, instead of three buildings as previously proposed, along with a new bus station, and a public plaza connecting to the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway.
Thomas O’Brien, managing director of HYM Investment Group, the lead developer on the Bulfinch Crossing project, said during a virtual meeting sponsored by the Boston Planning & Development Agency on Thursday, Sept. 23, the change came in response to the MBTA’s stipulation that nothing be built over the tunnel, which serves the Orange and Green lines and runs directly beneath the site.
The developer subsequently abandoned its plans to build three buildings containing hotel, office and retail uses, which were previously approved by the BPDA, said O’Brien, opting instead for a life-sciences building.
As a concession to the West End community, O’Brien said the developer had reduced the proposed height of occupiable space in the building from 215 feet in April to 199 feet in July and now, to 179 feet. But as Rob Whitney, chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association board, pointed out, the height of the building would in fact be 235 feet with the mechanicals, or 57 percent above the allowed height under the Greenway Guidelines. “You reduced it, but it’s still a significant height,” Whitney told the developer.
In a Sept. 23 letter to BPDA Project Manager, Nick Carter, Whitney wrote on behalf of the Civic Association board in part: “A major objective of the Big Dig was to remove the physical barrier between the North End and the other downtown neighborhoods. The Proposal site is located on major pedestrian thoroughfares that must be improved to reconnect Beacon Hill, the North End and West End. The Proposal as currently designed does not provide for such improvement. The height of the current design for the Building under the Proposal, at over 200 feet, far exceeds the allowable height of buildings adjacent to the Greenway, which under the Greenway Guidelines (“Guidelines”), are limited to 150 feet in height.”
Likewise, Louise Thomas of the West End Civic Association said the proposed structure would be taller than the 157-foot building previously approved for the site.
“Guidelines are just guidelines,” countered O’Brien, who added that the increased height would be offset by the benefits of the public plaza, as well as of a new bus station on the east parcel, which will serve the 111 bus route – the T’s most heavily traveled bus route and one that connects Revere, Everett, Chelsea, and Charlestown to Haymarket.
Thomas also expressed concern that the new building would be home to Biosafety Level 1 and 2 bio lab space, saying she would be more comfortable seeing the previously approved hotel on the site, and asked if the BPDA could ensure that it wouldn’t eventually be upgraded to Level 3 or 4 lab space.
O’Brien responded the developer has no intention of making the building Level 3 lab space, which would entail a public process, as well as a vote by the BPDA board, while Level 4 space needs to be built from the ground up and meet additional criteria, unlike this project.
The new building would be pulled back to the western portion of the project site, said O’Brien, to create a spacious public plaza linking to the abutting Greenway, as well as to provide new connections to North Station and Congress Street.
Chris Cook, executive director of the Greenway Conservancy, expressed his gratitude to the project team for its consideration of Greenway, as well as stepping back the project to allow for more sunlight.
Similarly, Martha Maguire of the West End Community Center voiced her support for the proposed changes to the project.
On the Congress Street side, the sidewalk would be activated, said O’Brien, while the wall of the building on that side could provide a canvas for rotating public art.
A public lobby and retail would be located on the southern side of the new building, said O’Brien, while employees would have their own separate lobby with access to the upper floors.
The public plaza would have “retail spilling onto it,” said O’Brien, and would also likely include water features and seating.
“There’s a lot going on in this parcel,” said O’Brien in describing a place where he envisions people rushing to get buses and trains, residents making their way home to the West End and the North End, and shoppers attracted to the area by the new retail. “We want the parcel to be an important meeting place for people,” he added.
Moreover, with only one building on the parcel as opposed to three, it would only require a loading dock and service area for trucks in a single location, said O’Brien, while truck operations would likely take place on the site only after hours.
Jane Forrestal, a West End resident, said she had never felt safe walking in the area near the now-shuttered Dunkin’ Donuts or the erstwhile convenience store next door – a trek she once made two or three times a week. “Walking around the corner where the convenience store was, you never knew who was going be there,” said Forrestal.
O’Brien acknowledged this issue and said the developer had been eager to close both of these businesses, while adding that area would become “a crossroads with thousands of people walking by every day,” as well a place people where people would want to stop and sit.
As for a timeframe, One Congress, a 43-story office tower, must be completed by the end of 2022, said O’Brien, and the garage must be razed as part of this process. Construction on the east parcel would then begin within a six-month timeframe. (The Sudbury, a 45-story residential tower, opened last year, and is now 90 precent occupied, said O’Brien.)
The BPDA’s public comment period for this project ended Monday, Sept. 27.