Despite the significant setbacks the project has endured, representatives for the former Hotel Alexandra on hand for the Sept. 18 virtual meeting of the South End Landmark District Commission pledged their continuing commitment to redeveloping the long-neglected building at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street.
“The building seems to have an economic cloud over it from time to time, and this seems to be one of those times, so let’s hope for clearer skies,” said Marc LaCasse, the attorney representing Alexandra Partners, LLC.
Alexandra Partners purchased the historic building at 1767-1796 Washington St. in 2018 from the Church of Scientology for $11 million. The five-story, late Gothic building, with its sandstone façade and cast-iron details, was built in 1875 as a residential hotel by Caleb Walworth, one of the Walworth Brothers who founded The Walworth Manufacturing Company, which helped pioneer steam technology in the late 19th century.
When a new elevated electric train began running past its doors, the Hotel Alexandra’s slow decline throughout the 20th century began. The building had sat mostly vacant for more than 30 years (except for a longstanding retail tenant on the ground level) until 2008, when it was purchased, along with the historic brownstone next door known as the ‘Ivory Bean,’ for $4.5 million by the Church of Scientology.
In March of 2019, a 10-story, 158-room boutique hotel, which would have far exceeded the 70-foot height limit for new construction in the South End Landmark District, was approved for the site by the Boston Planning & Development Agency board, but that plan was scuttled shortly thereafter when the pandemic struck.
The developer subsequently considered selling the building after investors pulled out of the project, but instead it was reimagined as “Alexandra Residences,” a 13-story, mixed-use development with ground floor restaurant and café space, a rooftop level bar/restaurant, and around 70 condo units.
This iteration of the proposed project was approved by the South End Landmark District Commission on Dec. 6 of last year, but beginning in first quarter of 2022, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates 5.25 percent over a 14-month period, said LaCasse, “making construction financing extraordinarily expensive.”
The Alexandra project was neither the first, nor the only, project in Boston to be “put on hold” because of the difficulty of construction financing, coupled with increasing construction costs amid the rising interest rates, added LaCasse.
Given the current economic climate, lenders are now “skittish” to help finance large condo projects, said LaCasse, although there seems to be some indication that the Federal Reserve might move in the opposite direction with interest rates beginning in the first quarter of ’24.
In the spring of this year, Alexandra Partners put the building on the market without a “formal asking price” per Cushman & Wakefield, a Chicago-based global commercial real-estate development firm, in hopes of attracting a partner or investor who could self-finance the redevelopment project.
“It’s on the market, but we’re not been much interest on that front,” said LaCasse.
Thomas Calus, who, together with Jas Bhogal, helms Alexandra Partners said while the summer was “very slow,” many interested parties had looked at the property then as other interested parties continue to tour the building now.
“We own the property…so we’re certainly not giving up on it,” he said. “We’d love to build this project. It’s been many years that we’ve been working on it.”
Added Calus: “We’re hoping activity will pick up. We’re openminded, and we would totally entertain joint ventures with a partner that has a relationship with a bank, or a joint venture [where the investor buys the property outright and builds the building as approved].”
Calus said the project had faced an unfortunate streak of luck when first, the hotel market “tanked.” Then after the project transitioned to a condo building, the condo market collapsed amid high interest rates, he said.
“We still believe in it,” said Calus. “We love the design we worked on with you guys to get approved and everything we worked through. We’d love to find a way to build it, so we’re working on it.”
Commissioner John Freeman, who was on hand for the virtual hearing, along with Commissioners John Amodeo and Catherine Hunt, asked what could be done to secure the property for the winter regarding weatherproofing. Claus agreed to involve commission staff in this process per Commissioner Freeman’s request.
Meanwhile, representatives for Alexandra Partners had an onsite meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street with Sen. Nick Collins, Rep. John Moran and Yvonne Hao, the Commonwealth’s secretary of economic development, to discuss the future of the project, as well as how it might potentially qualify for, and benefit from, state assistance or state programs.
Fortuitously, Hao was touring the neighborhood at the time, looking for projects that might benefit from state assistance, said LaCasse, when she was summoned to the site.
While surveying the property, Hao also reiterated Gov. Maura Healey’s “strong interest in creating housing everywhere in the Commonwealth,” LaCasse told this reporter.
The meeting was “very productive” and encouraging, especially considering the high-level individuals involved, said LaCasse, and it resulted in “helpful ideas” about a path forward for the project.