It’s been so long since the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) for the massive Exchange South End project has met, that many members haven’t lived in the area for some time and others didn’t remember they were members.
So it is, though, the process jump-started out of the blue this week when members of the IAG – which is tasked with mitigating a two-phase project looking to build 1.5 million square feet of lab and office space on the former Flower Exchange – received a long-anticipated Cooperation Agreement. The Agreement is the last step in the community review process and codifies all the promises made within the review process.
In this case, some of the promises were made long ago, and are still included in the Agreement, but the IAG stalled out on transportation when it was meeting years ago – and remaining members still have concerns about language regarding transportation and in particular the long-controversial connector road to I-93 that would keep thousands of vehicle trips out of the neighborhood.
Exchange South End went through a tremendous amount of community presentation and process over a few years long before the pandemic, and is brought by Boston developers, The Abbey Group.
Audrey Epstein Reny, managing partner at The Abbey Group, said they have not yet broken ground on the project, but have done the demolition and site prep work allowed prior to getting a building permit.
“During the pandemic, we continued our work with City Hall and are excited to have a draft cooperation agreement ready for comments,” she said this week. “We remain committed to the process of working with the community to bring a multitude of public community benefits to the area.”
Some of those benefits include as many as 7,000 new permanent jobs in the life sciences, technology, retail, research and non-profit fields; an accessible one-acre park on the site called Albany Green; a pedestrian friendly streetscape; improvements to the transportation infrastructure; and a tremendous 30,000 sq. ft. community space whose use is yet to be defined by the community.
A sticking point, however, has been the connector road to the I-93 frontage road, which would allow commuters to access the site in and out without having to enter Albany Street or the South End.
A little over a year ago, The Abbey Group said it remained committed to the connector, but the Agreement language regarding the connector to Frontage Road and BioSquare Drive calls it a “proposed future connections,” while being resolute about constructing an extension on site to East Canton Street and others.
“We remain committed to the frontage road access in conjunction with Boston University, Jacobson’s, and city and state officials, and are following the phased process approach as outlined in our Board memo with the city,” said Epstein Reny, who noted that nothing has changed since The Abbey Group reiterated its commitment to the connector in 2020.
Some members of the IAG and those that have now inherited vacated seats said the timetable to review the document is only about one week, and they said that is a rush job given that the overall project has been in “sleep mode” for about two years.
Members said the perspective is that this is the largest single project in the recent history of the neighborhood, and there are concerns many pieces from the original IAG recommendation letter in 2017 are missing from the draft agreement.
Already, the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) has re-convened the Exchange IAG and will hold a virtual public meeting on the matter Aug. 4 at 5:30 p.m.