Building atop JFK/UMass station? Still a possibility, officials say

By 
Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Dec. 27, 2012

Could the wave of development hitting Columbia Point spark a renewed look at a development on top of the JFK/UMass MBTA station? Some local officials think it’s a possibility.

The potential rekindling of a plan to sell “air rights” to a developer, allowing a firm to build on top of the transit hub, was brought up at a recent meeting to draw public input on a Morrissey Boulevard residential project.

David Greaney, the founder of Synergy Investments, owns the property between Shaw’s Supermarket and the MBTA station and plans to build a 278-unit residential project on the vacant lot. At a public session earlier this month, put together by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Greaney said his project, a planned Herb Chambers dealership 100 yards down the boulevard, and a Corcoran Jennison residential development across the road could “reinvigorate” interest among developers eyeing “air rights” projects.

State Rep. Marty Walsh agreed, saying the possibility could re-emerge, after years of dormancy on the idea.

Transit officials say the 4.7-acre MBTA site would be challenging to develop, since the station is a busy one, with bus stops, the South Shore commuter rail, and the Red Line sitting right below the Southeast Expressway. “But it is a great location for development, particularly with the other development that’s taking place in the area,” Mark Boyle, assistant general manager for development at the MBTA, told the Reporter. “So we believe there could be interest in the site, but there hasn’t been definitive interest to date.”

The MBTA pulled back on an air rights proposal several years ago to wait on a BRA task force of city officials and local residents to finish its work on a 25-year “master plan” for the Columbia Point neighborhood, which it did, laying out guidelines for developers and pushing for a 412-acre neighborhood with an 18-hour day.

Under the plan, which was approved in June 2011, the allowed building height in the area near the train station is 17 stories.

Developers would likely want to go much higher to make their financial numbers work, given the expense of building on top of a train station. “To make the project financially feasible, the maximum height would have to be allowed,” Boyle said.

And then there’s the matter of likely resistance from those community members who have expressed discomfort over the idea of a tall tower in the neighborhood. Building height has become one of the more controversial pieces of the master plan, with then-City Councillor Maureen Feeney and others raising concerns early on and facing off against Don Walsh, the task force’s chair and a proponent of tower construction.

At the meeting earlier this month, Greaney said he’s keeping his development at five stories, in part due to potential community opposition to something higher.

According to the report issued by the master plan’s task force, developers seeking to build on top of the station would have to maintain a 25-foot right-of-way for the possible addition of a commuter rail track, as well as a two-floor clearance above the station. “Because of the proximity to transit, its gateway function, and its potential for beautiful views of the Boston skyline from upper floors, this site provides a prime location for a point tower with either residential or office uses,” the report noted.

“Development of the site also provides the opportunity for rebuilding the existing MBTA station to create a much more attractive, pedestrian-friendly station connecting the Dorchester neighborhoods west of the rail corridor and I-93 through the station to Columbia Point.”

A private developer would be subject to local zoning laws and have to run a gauntlet of community meetings. Boyle notes that despite MBTA properties’ exemption from local laws, a private developer on MBTA land would have to deal with them. “But nonetheless, the opportunity exists if a developer can make the finances work and secure permits,” he added.