By Eduard Miska
BU News Service
BOSTON– Kenmore Square is an iconic piece of Bostonian culture, easily recognizable by the landmark Citgo sign and its proximity to Fenway Park. But a recent proposal by NYC real estate and development company Related Beal means the familiar face of Kenmore is about to be remodeled.
Since the $144 million sale of sections of Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street by Boston University to Related Beal two years ago, plans for the demolition and renovation of those properties have been mired in public controversy, bureaucratic delays and confusion.
The process has evicted businesses and promoted polarizing architectural designs, all while the structures in question stand vacant, facing an uncertain future. A quiet conflict between Related Beal and Boston Preservation Alliance has emerged, respectively fighting for modernity and retaining the atmosphere of a forgotten era.
From grit to glitz
In the 1980s, Kenmore Square was a mix of underground rock clubs, bar fights and record shops, according to BU Today. But in 1983, Boston University made a foray into grimy Kenmore because its environment posed a supposed danger to the Charles River Campus.
Under the leadership of BU President John Silber, the university purchased the buildings at 533–541 Commonwealth Avenue and 650–660 Beacon Street. Together with Barnes & Noble, 660 Beacon became the university’s official bookstore, as it still remains.
However, in August 2016, the university changed course. Under the leadership of President Robert Brown, Boston University decided to sell its Kenmore properties in what ended up becoming a highly competitive bidding war. The victor for $144 million was Related Beal, one of the largest real estate and development companies in the United States.
Known for luxury residential complexes in Boston like Lovejoy Wharf, One Back Bay and The Clarendon, as well as business offices like Converse World Head, Related Beal owns a breadth of properties in the Boston area. The Kenmore purchase of 2016 was an addition to a steadily growing and diversified portfolio.
However, BU did not completely sever itself from the properties it sold to Related Beal.
According to Related Beal Senior Vice President Patrick Sweeney, BU has retained ownership of the land and signed a 99-year lease with the real estate company. However, Sweeney wrote that the university did not maintain an ownership stake in “the existing or future structures.”
Boston University’s Executive Director of Media Relations, Colin Riley, said that the reason why the university chose not to develop the properties it owned in Kenmore was that it consider itself an educational institution and not a developer.
The university is currently involved in other renovations on campus and has proposed the construction of a 17-floor BU Data Sciences Center on Commonwealth Avenue, in what is now the Granby Street parking lot. No estimated cost of the Data Sciences Center has been provided.
Riley said that the reason BU decided to not develop the Data Sciences Center in Kenmore was because Kenmore Square is not considered part of the campus.
To renovate or not to renovate
Architectural designs and the plans submitted by Related Beal show new, modern glass buildings in place of the current Kenmore structures. The plans detail the intended demolition of 650, 652–654 and 656 Beacon Street, along with 533 Commonwealth Avenue — spanning a combined total of 128,059 square feet.
However, upon the completion of the 2016 sale to Related Beal of the Kenmore properties, the public started to speak up. Concerns spread regarding the fate of a Boston icon that sits upon one of the properties sold – the luminous and omnipresent Citgo sign.
One major voice that emerged was the Boston Preservation Alliance. After they put pressure to determine the fate of the sign, Mayor Martin Walsh negotiated a settlement that would keep the Citgo sign up and shining. Yet, the alliance did not stop there.
Allison Frazee, director of advocacy for the Boston Preservation Alliance, believes that certain properties can be renovated. Related Beal disagrees.
Sweeney wrote that, “[Related Beal has] conducted a detailed study of the existing building conditions (…) We studied the site thoroughly and ultimately have determined that it is not feasible to retain certain existing structures given their condition, code compliance and other factors.”
However, he added that Related Beal “is pleased to be preserving more than 60 percent of the overall development’s square footage, including 660 Beacon, which houses the Citgo sign.”
Last week, the Boston Landmark Commission held a public hearing to decide if the Citgo sign would be made a landmark. There was no decision reached on that Oct. 9 meeting, although the opinion was split between those in favor and against, according to the Boston Herald.
According to proposals, the development would create 253,735 square feet of office space and 28,765 square feet of retail space. When asked if companies had already expressed interest in the office spaces, Sweeney detailed that “large-scale tenants looking to put their stamp at the center of a thriving neighborhood (…) will be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity.”
The desire to have high-end tenants, Frazee says, is the real reason why Related Beal will not renovate instead of demolition. While she does admit there are some structural issues with the buildings, she still believes preservation is possible.
Frazee said potential tenants Related Beal is looking for “want modern office spaces, big floor plans, big windows. If they were going to [renovate the properties], the spaces would be smaller, and they would be more intimate spaces, and they would attract a different type of tenant and a totally different price point.”
Frazee has also described Related Beal as unreceptive to their critiques and concerns.
“[Related Beal] have not, we feel like, put in a genuine effort in incorporating the buildings into the design,” she said.
After the Boston Preservation Alliance told the Boston Landmark Commission that the building, which used to house the City Convenience until this past Monday, needed renovation, the commission placed a 90-day delay on all construction on the site in September.
Frazee said that the commissioners wanted Related Beal to work harder on incorporating the current design.
“The commissioners made it pretty clear that they wanted [Related Beal] to try harder to do that; that the reasons they gave for not being able to incorporate the buildings weren’t good enough and that they need to work harder to do that,” she said.
As for the price of Related Beal’s proposals for the Kenmore properties, Sweeney did not provide any estimated costs of renovations and demolitions.
He said the approval process was still on-going. Related Beal has planned for construction on the Kenmore premises to begin the first quarter of 2019, with a goal of completion by the first quarter of 2021.
A disturbed square
From the morning rush hour to the wee hours late at night, Kenmore is a consistently bustling hub of students, commuters and Red Sox fans. Construction in a quarter of the square could lead to transit disruptions and delays.
Boston Planning and Development Agency project manager for the Kenmore redevelopment project, Tim Czerwienski, said that strategies for dealing with potential traffic disruptions would be compiled in a transportation access plan agreement. Czerwienski added that the project has not reached the phase to warrant such an agreement.
“I don’t think you can say that there won’t be a disruption to traffic, but our goal at the city is to obviously minimize that disruption,” Czerwienski said. “One of those it’s to make sure the construction takes place in its time and time frame, but also in terms of rerouting traffic and closing down lanes. We want to avoid that as much as possible.”
The full extent of disruptions to the MBTA is currently unknown. An entrance to the T is located directly across from 648 Beacon Street, a property which Related Beal has planned to renovate. The MBTA has yet to comment regarding potential construction disruptions to train and bus services in Kenmore.
But for Frazee, Kenmore Square is an essential part of the Bostonian experience.
“When we’re talking about so many people, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people come to Boston and experience for the first time and the only time at Kenmore Square going to a Red Sox game,” she said. “We want them to experience what Boston is truly all about and not that they come out of the subway to what feels like a suburban office park.”
See the proposed plan: