By Seth Daniel
If the Boston Flower Exchange project is going to be all about the community, they’ve certainly started in the right place.
Looking to pre-empt the City’s official process with their own “feeling out” of the South End community, principals of the Abbey Group appeared at the South End Forum on Weds., March 15, and then at the Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association on Tuesday, March 21, to kick off a two-month tour of the neighborhood meetings aimed at getting feedback on their initial ideas before officially filing with the City later this spring.
With an intent audience, Abbey principals David Epstein and Bill Keravuori unveiled a detailed look at the project for the large site on Albany Street – which they purchased last September from the Boston Flower Exchange.
The biggest idea out of the presentations was to expand the South End to the other side of Albany Street using the enticement of a one-acre greenway through the dense commercial and retail development.
“Our intention is to file with the City after we’ve had these conversations and gotten feedback,” said Epstein. “We will hope to file by the end of the spring, which will only begin the official review process. This right now is only our initial thinking. Our biggest goal is to make the (neighborhood) end on our property and not on Albany Street like it does now. It is different. It is a high-density, large commercial project.”
Dubbing it ‘Exchange South End,’ Southender Keravuori presented the details of the current thinking to neighborhood groups over the last week.
He started the tour at the Forum, showing large, 300-foot commercial towers abutting the Expressway while smaller retail outlets fronted Albany Street. It is a 5.5 acre site with 1.6 million square feet of development contemplated.
“We want to bring a commercial center to the South End,” he said, noting that they hope to attract technology or health sciences office uses to the center. There is no residential aspect contemplated at the moment.
However, in the initial designs, Keravuori stressed that as dense as the plan is, they have created huge amounts of open space with a park they call ‘Albany Green.’ The Green is a 1-acre park with open space, gardens and outdoor seating areas that runs perpendicular to Albany Street and is surrounded by the building development.
In a nod to the old days when the ocean ended at the Expressway, Epstein said they know there are old wharf structures under the ground, including huge amounts of ‘beautiful” old granite seawalls. They will reuse that granite in the Albany Green.
“The key thing is to have an experience where people become engaged with the site,” said Keravuori. “The central Albany Green ties everything together. It’s big. It’s more than an acre of space. We are required in our application (to the City) to have 20 percent open space. This plan is 45 percent. It really is a generous space.”
The central open space, he said, ties all things together, including the ground floor retail, and the large office parks. It also ties together an undefined community benefit, which is a 30,000 sq. ft. flex space for civic use.
“We see the civic space as the anchor to the site,” he said. “We want to figure out what it will be. We think this can be an amazing amenity to the community and something that brings the community into the site (after business hours). We don’t know what that is yet, but it’s something we can figure out.”
Epstein added that they want to use the civic space and retail to activate the development after business hours, as they don’t want to create a massive project that becomes a ghost town after 6 p.m. and on weekends.
Keravuori said they hope to have a web page up soon, and they plan to take their show on the road over the next two months, perhaps even having an open house on the site. After they have done that, he said they plan to come back to the Forum to present what they’ve learned. After that, they will submit plans to the City.
The approach is rather unique for large developments in the South End, and even throughout the City. Most of the large developments follow the City-prescribed Article 80 process form beginning to end.
The new approach was applauded by the Forum, and especially by Moderator Steve Fox.
“We’re happy to use this project as the first to kick off a new way of reaching the community,” he said. “There is a belief the Article 80 process in terms of community engagement isn’t as inclusive as it could be. We are delighted the Abbey Group has agreed to model a new engagement before filing with (the City).”
While the new process was the key to most comments at the Forum, at Blackstone/Franklin Square Neighborhood Association on Tuesday, March 21, featured a great deal of commentary on the project design, said President Eric Huang.
He said a consistent message from residents of the host Association was not to make the development into anything similar to the Seaport, which has fell out of favor with many Boston residents over the last few years. He said they were encouraged to be creative and daring with the architecture and not to be too conservative, as is often the case in Boston.
“The east side of Albany Street — the frontier of the South End — is a blank canvas to create a completely new place, so be creative,” he said.
He said that the 300-foot height of buildings near the Expressway was well received, as taller buildings near the highway make better sense.
As president, he said he has two concerns for the next massive development in his neighborhood.
“First, it’s important that this be an 18-hour destination that draws in residents from the South End and not just a 9 to 5 commuter office park that empties out at night,” he said. “Second, transportation connections and improvements must be superior for the 5,000 to 8,000 employees that are expected to come to the site each day. This means improved connections to I-93 that keep traffic off local roads, better connections to public transit, and improvements to the Silver Line, the major public transit link for this area. It was good to see that the Abbey Group was already thinking about these things and making note of neighbors’ comments to further refine its proposal.”
Exchange South End will continue its tour of the neighborhood in the coming months, and is likely to be on the agendas of many associations prior to filing.