By Seth Daniel
Kendall Square, say hello to the South End.
Intended owners of the Boston Flower Exchange on Albany Street drew an early picture for the City Council and residents at last Thursday’s Public Hearing of a biotech campus in the style of Kendall Square that includes exciting retail opportunities and, perhaps, some residential.
The Abbey Group was introduced at the May 26 Council hearing – a first of its kind since the recent approval of the Urban Renewal plan – as the intended buyer of the property from the Boston Flower Exchange ownership consortium. The five-acre site has been shrouded with mystery for several months as rumors of a buyer circulated through the neighborhood, and the name of the Abbey Group – headed up by a long-time South Ender, became public last week.
The announcement at City Hall packed a little bit of excitement, as the intended owners revealed potential plans to bring the innovation in Cambridge to the highway-abutting property in the South End. “In accordance with the zoning change sought, this process unlocks access to the potential of something that’s a dynamic, mixed use commercially-centered project at this parcel,” said William Keravuori, managing partner of the company.
“This is the edge of the South End and this is an opportunity to create an interesting and accessible development that will create a lot of jobs for this area,” he said. “We envision a dynamic, urban campus for the tech businesses and a biotech alternative opportunity to Kendall Square. We’d like to get the companies in Kendall Square into the South End of Boston and get new companies here too…We would like to have open space and we haven’t determined what kind of new residential units we would have and we’d like some retail. That’s our goal…I’m a 20-year South Ender. I live here and do business here. This is my neighborhood too.”
Keravuori added that he was at one time a long-time Board member of the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association, putting him in the unique position of understanding just how many associations would have to be included in any development meetings.
Keravuori, in comments afterward, told reporters Abbey hoped to close on the property as soon as possible, but weren’t yet the official owners. When pressed, he said there isn’t an official plan yet.
He did say that zoning would allow up to 1.6 million square feet of development, if approved, and that something of that size would be about three-times the size of the Ink Block. Zoning on the parcel contemplates towers of up to 20 stories abutting the Interstate. According to a floral trade publication cited by many news outlets, the conglomeration of wholesale flower companies in the Exchange reported an agreement to sell the property for $40 million – though that transaction has not yet gone through the official process. Abbey Group has long been whispered to be that intended buyer, but no official word had come until last week and no official plan was known until last Thursday – with rumors swelling through the South End since last fall about what might be planned for the area, including talk of a gigantic parking lot for a Bob Kraft-built soccer stadium on the other side of the highway.
Keravuori said they’ve been involved for quite some time. Sources told the Sun earlier this year that a good deal of the delay had to do with discussions involving compensation to the BRA and approval by the BRA for the sale – as the land was originally BRA property before the Flower Exchange began occupancy in 1969.
“It’s a gigantic development and it’s taken us a while to get to this point, but it’s been a good process and we’re very excited about it,” said Keravuori. “We think we can do great things for this part of the South End.”
The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) must first approve a minor modification to the zoning to take away the Light Industrial designation from the zoning and add commercial/residential and accessory parking. That is expected to happen at the BRA Board meeting on June 9 and Keravuori and Chief Operating Officer David Epstein said they would like to close on the property as soon as possible after the zoning change is approved and the BRA consents to the property transfer.
Councilor Bill Linehan, chair of the Planning and Development Committee, ran the hearing on May 26, which was a new venture into the world of Council oversight of the BRA. The hearing was touted as a first of its kind model and process at the Council with full public participation.
“This is a ‘what’s going on’ meeting,” said Linehan, noting that previously the Council wouldn’t have had the power to oversee a minor zoning modification proposed by the BRA. “You’re the ones who know…Right now, we want to know what you would do with the property if it is approved.”
Councilor Michael Flaherty said he is excited to hear the prospects of the creation of jobs, which Epstein pegged at between 5,000 and 10,000 according to zoning guidelines.
Flaherty also joined the call from Councilor Frank Baker to preclude the addition of any further social services to the area, such as a Methadone Clinic.
“As long as there’s not another Methadone Clinic down there, I am ok,” said Flaherty.
“I think we can agree to that right now,” said Keravuori.
Councilor Josh Zakim said the Abbey Group has a great reputation and he enjoyed working with them when they pioneered development in the Fenway on the Landmark Center project.
“My experience working with the developer in my district in the Fenway is that they have a significant track record of working with the community and individuals,” he said.
Council President Michelle Wu wanted assurance that Abbey would be open to working with all of the South End, and reminded them with a laugh that the neighborhood has more Associations per capita than most of the civic world.
Epstein said they are well aware and are looking forward to working with the South End in the same way they worked with the Fenway on Landmark Center in the early 2000s, which he said was another transformative development in a pioneering area.
“I’d like to liken this to the Landmark Center when the Fenway wasn’t the dynamic area it is today,” he said. “That building had been vacant and we went through a good process. We had extensive dialog with the neighborhood associations and the CDC (Community Development Corporation) there and they informed the development. Through that process, we successfully developed Landmark Center. It’s a similar situation.”
Steve Fox of the South End Forum expressed some relief that rumors could be put to bed about the soccer enterprise and he said he is glad to see it is contemplated now as commercial – which is somewhat more in line with the 2012 zoning changes for the corridor.
However, he said he wants to make sure that the financing of the project doesn’t preclude home ownership in any residential component of the project. Recently, with a proposal nearby by Leggatt McCall, the pension fund financier precluded the developer from building anything other than rental apartments, which goes contrary to the more recent call by neighbors for ownership opportunities in any new developments.
“We’ve seen over and over and over again the financing of these projects has had a direct impact on these projects,” he said. “In one development, the financier doesn’t want to do anything related to owner-occupancy because it’s a pension fund. I hope we can be clear that this can be reflective of the wants of the South End and the needs of the South End and the market and not let the financing be the sole determinant of what gets built there.”
Another concern by Sue Sullivan of the Newmarket Business Association was the creeping up of residential uses into what have traditionally been industrial areas – a problem that is facing the entire City’s industrial areas.
“The Abbey Group does terrific work, but my concern is the shrinkage of the Light Industrial,” she said. “When you consider the zoning put in place there only three years ago, this is a full departure from that…To take light industrial out of the picture is a full departure. Why do we go though the zoning process that we do and two or three years later turn around and do something completely different?…This really feels like a full departure.”
The matter will be fully discussed at the June 9 BRA Board meeting.
William Keravuori, managing partner, and David Epstein, chief operating officer, of the Abbey Group at a City Council hearing on May 26 which unveiled potential plans for the Boston Flower Exchange by Abbey, the intended buyer.
South End Forum’s Steve Fox spoke before the Council on May 26 about making sure ownership opportunities come to bear in any new residential ventures on the property.
Sue Sullivan of the Newmarket Business Association had concerns about more industrial property being zoned into commercial and residential uses.
Correction box –
In last week’s Sun, it was reported that the Abbey Group had bought the Boston Flower Exchange, though in fact they only intend to buy the property. It was reported that the transaction had gone through, but in fact that is not yet the case. Members of the Abbey Group said they are hopeful the transaction will go through sometime later this summer, but only after a BRA meeting on June 9 okays the sale and a minor zoning modification.