By Seth Daniel
It’s fair to say The Abbey Group’s Bill Keravuori knew almost everyone in the neighborhood already, being a long time Southender.
However, after a whirlwind tour in the last 60 days of nearly every neighborhood association, group and institution to debut ideas for the Exchange South End project (former Boston Flower Exchange), it’s fair to say he now knows almost everyone and then a few more.
Keravuori returned to the South End Forum on Tuesday night, May 2, to unveil what The Abbey Group has learned in taking their initial ideas to the public in dozens of meeting presentations – a tour that began at the South End Forum in March. It is a new grass-roots process that has come before the project has even been submitted to the City, and one that many residents hope will break the mold of how projects are reviewed in Boston.
“I hope this will become a model of how South End development projects are proposed, rather than just through the City’s Article 80 process,” said Steve Fox, moderator of the South End Forum.
Keravuori said he has heard from the public that they like the idea of bringing a jobs engine to the site, of along with the South End across Albany Street, and of creating taller buildings on the back by the Expressway and having the smaller buildings on the street.
“We got a lot of good ideas and lots of engagement,” he said. “The dialog has been great. We think it will lead to better things. We’ve been excited about this dialog and learned a lot from it.”
Overall, he said his favorite stop was the South End Seniors. While expecting a small group, he encountered more than 70 seniors who were “really into it” and excited.
In one piece of news, they have decided not to place a hotel within the project – saying there just isn’t enough room despite the 1.6 million square feet of development on the site. The problem, he said, is to create a life sciences or technology working environment, one has to have “critical mass” and density. He said in Kendall Square, the environment doesn’t look all that great, but it’s a cauldron for workers from various companies to congregate, mix and come up with the next great idea. Given that demand in the tech/life sciences market, he said a hotel just doesn’t fit the bill.
“The answer is we don’t think there is room for the hotel,” he said.
“It’s an idea economy,” he continued. “Ideas don’t happen in isolation. They happen when you mix as many people with good creativity into a space as you can. We’re trying to create an environment that’s conducive to that soup.”
Another piece they shared was the ability for them to create, or partner with Boston Medical Center/BU, on an enhanced shuttle system that would serve all three areas with transportation to the Broadway Red Line, Back Bay Station and other public transit hubs.
He said both BMC and BU are interested in working together on a shuttle system.
“That’s going to be our lifeblood,” he said. “We have to get that right.”
There was concern, universally, he said, about the one-plus acre Albany Green site. Many believed that it had potential, but that it also could be a negative if not supervised or programmed correctly. Keravuori said they will do everything they can to make sure that is done. It’s not just a park, he said, and The Abbey Group doesn’t plan on leaving the project.
They are in it for the long-term, he said, just as they have been in the Fenway and Downtown Crossing.
“We see it as a bit of a different paradigm here,” he said. “We want to create a really strong program and calendar that engages those working there and those living in the neighborhood and there is something always fresh so people will come. It comes down to a management solution and an operations solution so many things people are worried about won’t take root here. Everybody sees what needs doing. We see it too…We’re committed to creating this kind of environment.”
One thing they did learn was that in the first phase of the retail portion, they will want to create daycare space and fitness space.
“There are a couple of things we will want to do first,” he said. “We’ll want to provide a daycare with ages as young as possible. The other is fitness. Both are seen as Phase 1 needs and things to introduce from the beginning.”
The project is expected to be submitted to the City this spring or summer for the beginning of the Article 80 project review process. Since most in the neighborhood already have seen the project, and the developers have heard and responded to comments, it isn’t expected to have large amounts of opposition or surprises during the community meeting process.
In a perfect world, Keravuori said they would hope to start construction in the summer of 2018, with a two year cycle. Construction would end in 2020 in a perfect world, and things would be moving along by 2021.
There could be anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 employees at the Exchange.