Exchange South End gets BPDA Ok, Now it’s Time to Negotiate with Neighbors

The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) Board approved one of the largest science and technology centers ever for the South End this month, and with that approval for Exchange South End, now comes the deal-making for the neighborhood in what is a new process here.

Exchange South End encompasses 1.6 million square feet. of life science, technology and commercial space – as well as the long-touted Albany Green park – in what was the old Boston Flower Exchange on Albany Street. The project has been vetted for more than a year with at least 50 meetings in the community, but the official process ran into some snags when it came to traffic planning and community benefits.

In the end, the approval came with a $12.5 million payment to create affordable housing, more than 4,000 permanent jobs (if not more), $2.5 million in jobs linkage fees and a 30,000 square feet civic space situated over the Albany Green.

The project will consist of the phased construction of four buildings, the tallest of them to be nearly 300 feet and abutting the Expressway. There will also be up to 1,155 parking spaces.

“This approval is an important step forward for Exchange South End,” said William Keravuori, managing partner at The Abbey Group. “The South End is an established authentic neighborhood and Exchange South End will provide much-needed life sciences research space and office space that will connect the Albany Street corridor with the South End community. We are excited to move through the remainder of the approval process so we can bring this new, vibrant destination to life.”

The remainder of the process, though, isn’t done just yet in the neighborhood.

For years, many have lamented the BPDA’s mitigation process that reserved cash payments for select organizations in a process that wasn’t as transparent as Southenders felt it should be.

Now, that will change with Exchange South End, where a new community process will play out where neighbors can decide what mitigation they want.

Steve Fox, who was on the Exchange South End Impact Advisory Group (IAG), said they will soon begin creating a Working Group to conduct a process to discuss mitigation with the community.

That has not been tried before, especially on a project that has offered the community a lot of potential assets.

“In this new process we’ll have an actual outreach to the larger South end community and have an application process for the mitigation,” said Fox. “We will have a lot to decide. One thing we’ll have to decide on is the 30,000 square-foot. community space that is offered as a community benefit should be monetized. Or maybe we cut that down to 10,000 square feet of community space and take the other 20,000 square feet and create an monetized endowment to support many things in the South End. That is the process we will go through for the next year. It hasn’t begun yet, but it is clearly set up in the final letter from the BPDA. I’d say it’s cast in stone.”

That represents a major change in the way mitigation is done in the South End, where development is going great guns at the moment. A project approved for the Davis Companies on Shawmut Avenue last month will also go through that process.

BPDA spokesperson Bonnie McGilpin said those processes might be new to the South End, but they have been tried in South Boston and Roxbury. Beyond that, a community mitigation fund process has also been set up in Charlestown for community groups to reap the benefits of mitigation payments from the Encore Boston Harbor casino.

A key point has been transportation, and just how Exchange will handle thousands of workers coming into one small site on a daily basis – a site that does not have any major public transit access close by.

The project is designed to integrate multimodal transportation site-access improvements, the BPDA said, including direct connections to the I-93 corridor, the South Bay Harbor trail, the South End neighborhood, and nearby transit stops.

One of the major pieces – though many in the South End wouldn’t say it’s a panacea – is activating the connector from BioSquare Drive to the Expressway connector road. That connection was built, but never completed due to political disparities at the time.

That connector has been included as part of a new street system that will run through Exchange.

“Exchange South End will build upon the goals of the Harrison-Albany Corridor Strategic Plan and make significant contributions to the implementation of transportation improvements through creating a better connection to the highway, improving access to public transportation and redesigning Albany Street with dedicated bus and bike lanes,” said Keravuori.

That process will also continue to play out as the South End discusses the mitigation and structure of what many would say is a once-in-a-generation commercial development for the neighborhood.

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