How a ‘layer-cake’ TOD won over a Boston neighborhood — and fetched $97 million

New Urban News

A complex with a 29,000 sq. ft. supermarket on its second level defies the depression in commercial real estate.

Commercial real estate in the US is suffering from a down market similar to the one afflicting residential property. Yet in Boston, a project containing 200,000 sq. ft. of office, retail, and restaurant space sold this year for nearly $97 million — twice what it cost to develop in 2003.

At a September meeting of the Connecticut chapter of the Urban Land Institute, Kirk Sykes, vice president of the New Boston Fund, presented the project, One Brigham Circle, as an example of the potential for development near medical institutions — principal engines of the urban economy.

For the New Boston Fund, which owned and helped develop the complex, the sale to AEW Capital Management for a hefty $96.8 million was a vindication of the fund’s involvement in urban and transit-oriented development.

New Boston teamed up about eight years ago with NDC Development Associates and Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services to create the mixed-use development, transforming a corner property that held a gas station and a nondescript strip shopping center.

The aim was to replace drab auto-oriented uses with medical office space, neighborhood-serving retail, and a public park — thus enhancing an old, working-class neighborhood while generating profits for investors. The three-story complex, plus the development of a 5.5-acre public park on an adjacent parcel of overgrown land, cost $48 million.

Residents have their say

To bring a project like this to fruition, it’s often necessary to conduct a public planning process in which neighborhood residents get a strong say. Mission Hill hired David Dixon, head of urban planning for Goody Clancy & Associates, to organize community outreach. The neighborhood, a one-square-mile, racially mixed area with about 18,000 residents, sits next to the Longwood medical area, Boston’s biggest collection of health care institutions.

Medical institutions are often bad neighbors. They do things like acquiring properties and letting them sit ugly and underused for years, until the institution is ready to redevelop them. The buildings that eventually rise from those sites are often out of scale with the older housing close by.

The site of One Brigham Circle, at Huntington Avenue and Tremont Street, was owned by Harvard University, which in the 1990s was eager to sell. Jim Hoffman, executive director of Mission Hill NHS, persuaded Harvard to pay most of the cost of a process through which the community would define objectives for the redevelopment.

Residents expressed a desire a supermarket, a sit-down restaurant, and other businesses benefiting the neighborhood. They also said they wanted the elevated, scruffy land behind the disliked strip shopping center to be converted into a park.

What emerged through the planning was a three-story structure — Sykes calls it a “layer cake.” On the ground floor, facing a public plaza and Brigham Circle, are a TGI Friday’s, a Boston-based JP Licks ice cream store, banks, and other enterprises. The businesses are a few steps away from where trolley trains of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority stop for passengers.

An escalator takes customers to the layer cake’s second level, containing a Walgreens pharmacy and an urban prototype Stop & Shop. Hoffman says the supermarket — at 29,000 sq. ft., it’s less than half the size of a standard suburban Super Stop & Shop — has fared well, achieving ”sales equal to their other stores’.” Rather making one big weekly shopping trip, “people come three to four times a week,” purchasing in smaller increments, Hoffman says.

About 130 parking spaces for customers of the supermarket and drug store have been built on a deck at the rear of the project. Those open-air spaces sit on top of about 250 parking spaces serving the third-floor offices of Partners HealthCare. (The rear of the project is built into a hillside.) “Partners got a nice big-floorplate space in the center of the city, that’s completely urban in its expression,” Dixon points out.

From the retail parking deck, people can walk up a path to the Kevin W. Fitzgerald Park — a passive open space with benches, lawns, and views of the city. The park, in turn, connects to residential areas.

The complex has enjoyed high occupancy, Hoffman said. “The objective of revitalizing the commercial center of the neighborhood was achieved. There has been a lot of spin-off small retail development. People have felt comfortable investing here. It’s been a catalyst to the redevelopment of the business district.”

As Sykes sees it, the collaboration showed how urban medical institutions can find room for expansion and at the same time contribute to neighborhood improvement. One Brigham Circle, he says, “dragged a medical use across the street” to the ultimate benefit of everyone.

“The community was suspicious of large-scale development” and had previously fought medical expansion, Dixon says; this project “broke the mold by getting a community to say ‘more is better.’” Dixon has since worked with Mission Hill on another project about six blocks away, close to a transit station.