Massachusetts city aims for a downtown remake

Architect Richard Heapes made his name more than two decades ago by planning Mizner Park, a stylish, extremely popular town center that rose like a phoenix from the site of a failed shopping mall in Boca Raton, Florida.

In the years since, Heapes moved to Street-Works LLC, a design and development company based in White Plains, New York, where he orchestrated endeavors such as Blue Back Square — gracefully stitching a 20-acre mixed-use complex onto the venerable town center of West Hartford, Connecticut.

Now Heapes is involved in probably the most challenging urban project of his career — the replacement of most of the existing downtown of Quincy, Massachusetts. The scope of the Massachusetts project is enough to make many planners queasy. Street-Works, where Heapes is a principal, intends to build practically a new downtown — “20 blocks of pretty traditional development: retail on the ground floor, something else above it,” as Heapes puts it — where now stands the partly attractive, partly nondescript business center of Quincy.

Street-Works envisions two hotels; destination retail, including a movie theater, a department store, and a supermarket; street retail with at least 30 restaurants; a wellness center including a full-service health club and medical facilities; two to four educational institutions; more than a million square feet of offices; eight parking garages; and up to 1,400 housing units of varied kinds.

All of the existing infrastructure, such as the collapsing clay pipes of 200-year-old sewers, is to be replaced. Streets and sidewalks will be rebuilt, five new public spaces will be created, and a sixth public space will be rehabilitated. In all, Street- Works and the 91,000-population City of Quincy anticipate $340 million of new infrastructure and more than $1.3 billion of construction for private development.

The “new Quincy Center,” as city officials call it, encompasses 50 acres that will begin to see replacement of its infrastructure in 2012 and will get the first of its private real estate construction in 2013. Downtown Quincy is now a hodgepodge — a few historic buildings, a cemetery where John Adams and John Quincy Adams are buried, some modern office buildings, and quite a few mundane storefront buildings, some of them just one story high.

“Except for about five historic buildings, it comes down,” Heapes told New Urban News during an interview in the 82-year-old Granite Trust building, the first property that Street-Works acquired when the firm’s wooing of the city began.

The extent of demolition and rebuilding conjures up unhappy memories of 1960s urban renewal — a program that left blocks in many cities empty for decades.

A new financial model?

One of the things that sets the Quincy project apart from old-style urban renewal is its financial structure. After nearly three years of negotiations, the city and Street-Works agreed that the bulk of the financial risk would be borne by the developer (and its lenders and investment partners) rather than the municipality

Street-Works will round up the money to pay for the infrastructure replacement as well as for private portions of the project. This mechanism — the “purchase model” — “largely eliminates the public risk often associated with redevelopment projects,” Mayor Thomas P. Koch emphasized in a press statement. “The City will purchase the public infrastructure — including parking garages — from Street-Works only when new buildings are occupied and producing enough revenue to cover the City’s debt costs.”

“We think we have the model for urban redevelopment,” says Chris Walker, the mayor’s director of policy and information. “This will avoid the empty-hole feeling when making a commitment. This protects the City from losing out on its investment.”

“For Street-Works,” Walker says, “the benefit is that they have the full faith of the City behind them,” which should help the company raise capital from nongovernmental sources. The New York Times reported April 6 that by the time construction starts, Street-Works “will have spent $50 million of its own funds, as well as money raised from Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance Company, Ronus Properties of Atlanta and others.”

For construction financing, the developer plans to take the city bond guarantee and its signed leases to the private equity and debt markets for institutional and traditional loans, Ken Narva, a partner of Heapes, told The Times. Joint venture partners are expected to be involved in developing at least 12 of the 25 new buildings with financing they raise themselves.

Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard, calls the Quincy arrangement the “build-operatetransfer model.” It’s unusual but “not shockingly new,” says Kayden, noting that “the larger the project, the more likely it is that the developer is building some infrastructure.”

Heapes says one reason for turning to an unusual financial arrangement was that after the strong public reaction to the use of eminent domain in New London, Connecticut, to clear a large site for Pfizer pharmaceuticals (which built a research complex and later closed it in a corporate cutback), reliance on eminent domain appeared to be out of the question.

Kayden says that in fact, “eminent domain is not impossible. A bunch of projects around the country rely on eminent domain or the threat of eminent domain. It hasn’t been shut down by Kelo” — the 2005 US Supreme Court decision that prompted a backlash against government seizures of property for private redevelopment.

In any event, Street-Works worked out deals with more than 30 land owners without resorting to eminent domain.

“We’re into the permitting process now,” says Walker. Work has begun on a project to move a brook that for years has been in a culvert under a downtown street. Nearly 200 feet of brook will be opened up, and a park setting will be created around it.

A road project will “get a lot of through-traffic out of downtown and eliminate a traffic bottleneck,” Walker continues. A bridge is to be built over tracks of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to help people reach Quincy Center.

The transit connection

The impetus for remaking downtown Quincy came from Stop & Shop, a supermarket chain that had tired of having its headquarters in a tired-looking downtown which long ago ceased being a regional retail destination. Street-Works had worked with Stop & Shop on many projects and thus was strongly recommended to the city.

“We told the mayor you can’t do it piecemeal,” Heapes says. “You’ve got to do the whole downtown.” The new Quincy Center has been approved for 3.5 million square feet of development, with a few buildings allowed to rise as high as 20 stories.

“The private sector designs it all and constructs it,” Heapes explains. “The private sector takes the risk on the cost. The city is not taking a lot of risk. This is really the model” for current era. There will be about 5,000 parking spaces — a number that Walker says is not excessive, given the quantity of office, retail, and entertainment space and the number of households. “The city lowered the parking requirement because it’s a transit-oriented development,” he notes.

Why does the developer think such a large and complicated project, requiring perhaps 10 years from groundbreaking to completion, will succeed? A key factor is the shortage of developable areas within the Rt. 128 beltway that encircles Boston and its nearer suburbs. “Within the 128 circle of value, there’s no land, and where there is land, it takes 10 years to get it entitled,” Heapes asserts.

Downtown Quincy can capitalize on that situation because the city is not only well-connected to highways, including Interstate 93; it is also on the MBTA’s Red Line, just six stops (about 20 minutes) from downtown Boston by rail. A “T” station is about a two-minute walk from one of the main downtown streets.

Consequently, Heapes thinks that businesses, medical institutions, and schools will want to be in Quincy Center, and that many people, from students to empty-nesters, can be enticed to live there. He points out that “neighborhoods do come right up to downtown.”

In previous projects, including Santana Row in San Jose, California, and Bethesda Row in downtown Bethesda, Maryland, Heapes has demonstrated a talent for designing streets, sidewalks, and public spaces that attract people. He learned from Disney the importance of having a huge number of “points of detail” per block. “A hundred of those points have to be lovable, delightful,”.

“It’s about a matrix of layers,” Heapes says. “There have to be differences. Every café has different seating. You can’t do what the tenant next door to you is doing.”

The big challenge for projects of this size, says Harvard’s Kayden is: “Do they really happen? Often there’s demolition and then nothing.” Such setbacks occur, he says, “even in Boston. There’s the Filene’s [former downtown department store], an empty hole in the ground.”

In City Hall, Walker swats away such doubts. ”Over the course of 2 1/2 years, we’ve had more than 30 public meetings,” he relates. “The overriding sentiment was not if but when can we start. We’ve seen nothing but wholehearted support."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect figures for the cost of the new infrastructure and the value of the private construction. The story has been corrected to give the correct figures: $340 million in public infrastructure and $1.3 billion in private construction. 

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