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Boston Under Construction: A Snapshot Of A Boom

"It was a gritty kind-of backstreets area for my entire life. Now it’s a handsome new campus,” Boston Redevelopment Authority Director Brian Golden said of the Boston Landing/New Balance headquarters development -- one of the most notable under construction in the city. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)closemore
"It was a gritty kind-of backstreets area for my entire life. Now it’s a handsome new campus,” Boston Redevelopment Authority Director Brian Golden said of the Boston Landing/New Balance headquarters development -- one of the most notable under construction in the city. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It's boom times for Boston real estate. As we reported earlier this month, there are currently about 70 projects under construction throughout the city, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

As BRA Director Brian Golden told me: "We’re going through what is arguably the biggest building boom in the history of the city of Boston."

The BRA’s website has a detailed interactive map showing the city’s development projects in different stages of review and completion. We wanted to focus on what’s under construction, so we replicated that one aspect of the BRA map. Our map below shows square footage, cost and housing units for the 70 development projects the BRA listed as of July 1.

[asset]2015/0612_boston-crane-skyline[/asset]

Note: For simplicity, "mixed use" refers to any combination development, such as commercial/residential, commercial/hotel, etc. More details here

In a phone interview earlier this month, Golden said the current level of building represents a “spectacular turnaround from a few short years ago."

Golden, who started with the BRA in 2009, said the recession-scarred years of 2009-'11 were "abnormally bad," but developers "didn’t let up in permitting projects" and were ready to build when financing returned.

“I think the pent-up demand for development during the recession was so great that you saw the numbers take off above historical norms [in 2012 and over the last few years],” Golden said. Boston this year has 14 million square feet in total development that's under construction, he said.

What Stands Out On Our Map

Let's turn back to our map. A few things stand out on it, including all the green. That's for residential-only (not mixed use) developments.

Golden said the green pleases the BRA, because the level of residential construction is "addressing a very real demand and a very real need."

But, he added: "The trick for us is going to make sure that real estate development of residential units meets the demand of not just affluent folks who can handle market prices ... but we make sure there is robust creation of workforce units for people of far more modest means.”

He said the BRA is part of “serious conversations” about revisiting one mechanism for preserving affordable housing: the percentage of onsite units that must be set aside for such housing, which is currently 13 percent. That figure hasn’t been looked at in almost a decade, he said.

Another thing that stands out on our map is the number of projects concentrated in downtown and other core neighborhoods, including 14 total in South Boston and the South Boston Waterfront, or Seaport.

And that's another thing Golden said the BRA is focusing on.

“We are very committed to the notion that there should be more projects in places like Roxbury and Mattapan,” he said. "[Current Mattapan projects, for instance] are not satisfactory, by any stretch of the imagination. … We want to visit the benefits of a growing economy into neighborhoods that have not traditionally shared in those benefits, and are not currently sharing in as healthy a fashion as we’d like to see.”

Here, Golden made the case for the state extending the BRA's urban renewal powers. The powers — which Golden concedes have been abused in the BRA's past -- allow the agency to use tools like eminent domain and zoning controls to shape development. The BRA wants a decade-long extension; it's currently operating under a yearlong waiver.

“There are good things going on downtown and in some of the neighborhoods, but not all of the neighborhoods, and we need to get this growth and this economic vitality to those neighborhoods," he said. "But we need the urban renewal tools to do that effectively.”

Another thing our map has: little building icons for developments that are over 200,000 square feet. When asked about which projects stand out to him, Golden cited the Boston Landing/New Balance headquarters in his native Allston/Brighton -- and the much-anticipated Millennium Tower.

“Symbolically, the big hole in the ground at [the site of the old Filene’s Basement building], that was a real scar," he said. "And the heart of downtown Boston had a gargantuan crater in it for years, and that vexed City Hall and the BRA tremendously. So to see one of the tallest buildings in Boston growing from that site is a really important sign of Boston’s economic resiliency and recovery. That really removed a psychological wound and sent a signal … that we were back and better than before.”

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Benjamin Swasey Digital Manager
Ben Swasey is WBUR's digital manager.

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