State Institutes Special Review Process for Exchange South End

State environmental regulars (known as MEPA) have instituted a new review process for the large, commercial Exchange South End development that will allow construction to begin without first having solved critical traffic issues, including the I-93 Frontage Road access point to the site.

In a letter published in the state’s Environmental Monitor July 18, new Secretary of Environmental Affairs Kathleen Theoharides (of Arlington) agreed to establish a Special Review Procedure (SRP) process for Exchange – a rarely used review process in the busy MEPA offices. It comes one year after Exchange was ordered to submit new traffic procedures to MEPA for an extended review – a review that has been ongoing without any new developments since last summer.

The newly-minted SRP process has now divided up the 1.5 million square-foot project into two phases, where before it wasn’t using a phased approach. Phase 1 would have an ambitious building plan, including:

•demolishing the warehouse;

•building a six-story building on the western corner near Albany Street to accommodate 192,855 square feet of lab space, retail and civic space.

•building a 12-story building at the northern corner of the site adjacent to Albany Street for 284,030 square feet of lab space, 106,700 square feet of office space, and 8,000 square feet of civic space.

•The 1.1 acre Albany Green park.

•Exterior flex-space for programming.

The SRP will allow Phase 1 to begin construction with the current reviews, and then kick the critical connection to I-93 down the road for Phase 2 – which will continue to be under review. (Phase 2 would consist of a 23-story building, a 15-story building, and a 160,000 square-foot garage under those two buildings.)

In fact, the SRP determination suggested that maybe the I-93 connection may not even be part of the project down the road.

“The SRP will support advancement of Phase 1 while facilitating additional consideration of alternatives and measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate environmental impacts for Phase 2, including alternate designs for the connection to I-93 Frontage Road and an analysis of the operation of the selected design,” read the SRP letter.

The connector had always been a top demand of the neighborhood as it would allow traffic to stay off of South End streets like Albany, Harrison and the Back streets neighborhoods – streets that are often inundated with institutional commuter traffic now in the mornings and afternoons. Having a direct connection from Exchange would allow many of the proposed 7,000 employees to get onto and off of the highway without impacting the South End at all. That connector would also serve the community by extending East Canton Street and making a direct route for the neighborhood to Frontage Road.

However, that connection has always been tenuous.

Boston Medical Center (BMC) and Boston University attempted to establish that connection at their new parking garage on the Connector about 10 years ago, but were never able to get state and federal permission – leaving a spot for the connection that was never completed.

It appears Exchange has run into the same problems – with the proponent indicating it could take a year or more to get all the approvals to establish that connection to I-93.

“The (filing) indicated that additional vehicle trips generated by Phase 2 necessitate a connection to the I-93 Frontage Road,” read the letter. “This connection requires additional design coordination and approval by MassDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, the City of Boston and adjacent property owners. It is anticipated that the review process would take at least a year.”

With that traffic connection in flux, the Proponent – the Abbey Group – asked Secretary Theoharides to allow them to begin the first part of their construction so that the project doesn’t get bogged down.

“The Proponent requested that I establish an SRP and amend the Certificate…to allow Phase 1 to proceed through MEPA review and permitting prior to the completion of MEPA review of Phase 2,” read the letter.

Jason Epstein, managing partner of The Abbey Group, said they had anticipated they would need more time to work out the traffic and I-93 connections.

“Given the complex, multi-phase nature of this project, we had anticipated that this would require more time to process,” he said. “We are looking forward to creating a neighborhood destination and reconnecting this area with the surrounding South End community.”

However, community members were not as enthusiastic about the new designation due to the fact that there seemed to be a possibility of the I-93 Frontage Road.

South End Forum Moderator Steve Fox, who was a member of the Exchange Impact Advisory Group (IAG), said the new review process kind of thwarted hours and hours of work done by the IAG on traffic in 2018. Members of that IAG demanded a series of traffic studies and reviews and mitigation. One of the key pieces of that process was making sure the I-93 Frontage Road connection was, indeed, part of the project.

“The one thing we didn’t want was to have 7,000 new employees driving through the streets of the South End,” he said. “We expressly asked that they make that connection to help minimize traffic impacts on our streets.”

The project had a long review process in the neighborhood, with scores of meetings held all over the South End long before it was even proposed to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA). After it was filed with the BPDA, it went through another official review, and then had an elongated review on traffic by the IAG.

It was approved by the BPDA in 2018.

Last summer, MEPA voiced concerns over the traffic plan for Exchange and ordered them to submit further impact reviews for the traffic portion. That review – known as a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Report (SDEIP) – is what was divided up for the SRP.

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