April 13, 2012 The Boston Business Journal Fenway Center developer is fighting injustice when he sees it John Rosenthal, president of Meredith Management Corp., says he hates injustice of any kind. by Thomas Grillo, Real Estate Editor
After a three-year delay fighting an abutter’s lawsuit, John Rosenthal’s Fenway Center could get under way this year. A Land Court judge tossed the suit out, paving the way for the $450 million mini-city to be built next to a rejuvenated Yawkey Station near Fenway Park that will feature 1.3 million square-foot mixed-use project that includes offices, apartments and retail — a portion of which will be built on parking lots and over the Massachusetts Turnpike. Commuters on the Pike have seen Rosenthal’s giant Stop Handgun Violence billboard, a call-to-action message urging lawmakers to close federal gun law loophole that allow terrorists and criminals to purchase firearms at gun shows. He spoke with Boston Business Journal real estate editor Thomas Grillo.
Definition of a perfect day?
Its starts off with a walk in the woods with my dog and a cup of coffee at Beaver Brook Reservation in Belmont, followed by untracked powder skiing all day long in Vermont. It’s perfect powder that you ski through and it blows up over your head and you can’t wipe the smile off your face. The day would finish with an overnight sail from Gloucester to Maine by myself with moonlight shining off breaching whales on either side of the my 36-foot Sabre.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced?
Being in jail and getting beaten up by a neo-Nazi was frightening. I spent my 20s organizing against nuclear power and weapons and went to jail for 3 1/2 months. I was in the Rockingham County House of Correction in New Hampshire after 1,400 of us were arrested at Seabrook in 1977. It was on that work farm that this neo-Nazi with swastikas tattooed all over him decided I was fair game because I had a Jewish-sounding name.
If you could have lunch with anyone who would it be?
President Obama. One, because he is very bright, and two, because I’d like to know how he reconciles not fulfilling his campaign promises around the environment, drilling, nuclear power. For the first time we have a president since 1977 who is promoting nuclear power. I don’t understand that. He, more than any president, understands what unrestricted access to guns has done to the inner city, yet he has rolled over to the National Rifle Association — more so in some ways than President Bush. I support him but how does a guy like that sleep?
Do you have a mentor, and if so who is it?
Martin Luther King because he devoted his life and gave his life to fighting injustice: social, environmental, political, economic you name it. I’m following in those footsteps to a much lesser degree.
What’s the name of the book you most recently finished?
I read three books at a time and the (latest is) Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer.” It’s so inspirational. The title is a great metaphor for life — the concept being once you hike to the top of this mountain to provide a cure for TB you see there’s a bigger mountain to climb beyond.
Something that people don’t know about you?
I am the leading advocate for gun violence prevention, and I’m a gun owner.
Injustice of any kind.
April 13, 2012 The Boston Globe A remarkable renewal in Kenmore Square, the Fenway. As Fenway Park turns 100, development in area surrounding the stadium is finally coming into its own By Casey Ross, Globe Staff
As Fenway Park turns 100 this season, the neighborhood around it is finally growing up.
For decades the Fenway and Kenmore Square seemed frozen in the 1950s, filled with nondescript buildings and game-day parking lots. On Boylston Street, fast food restaurants and car washes sprouted next to gas stations, forming a mini Route 1 between the Back Bay and Brookline.
But in the last decade - as the Red Sox owners have restored Fenway Park itself - the blocks around the ballpark have undergone an extraordinary period of renewal: Boylston Street and Brookline Avenue are bustling with a dozen new restaurants; former parking lots are now filled with sleek apartment buildings; and hundreds of new residents add constant street life to the area.Related
“There’s a lot of positive energy,’’ said Pam Beale, co-owner of Cornwall’s, an English-style pub in Kenmore Square. “The streets are not just pass-throughs anymore. There’s a population living here that can sustain business 365 days a year, not just the 80 days when the Red Sox are in town.’’
To be sure, there remains plenty of work to do. Traffic constantly clogs Boylston Street, which in places feels about as walkable as a minefield. And there are plenty of empty storefronts and time-worn retail outlets.
Developers are steadily advancing new building projects. John Rosenthal hopes to finally start construction within the year on Fenway Center, a five-building complex that will fill parking lots along the Massachusetts Turnpike, between Brookline Avenue and Beacon Street, with apartments, stores, and offices. The state is also constructing a new Yawkey commuter rail station at the edge of the property.
Farther south on Brookline Avenue, developer William McQuillan has begun construction of the first new hotel in the area in several years, a Marriott Residence Inn. And around the corner on Boylston Street, four large mixed-use complexes would bring offices, hundreds of additional apartments, and new dining and retail options.
Developer Steve Samuels said he will begin construction of one of those developments, Boylston West, this summer. The project is expected to include a Target department store, 170 new apartments, and 200,000 square feet of office space. It will also add several new retail shops and restaurants to Van Ness Street, a now desolate passageway Samuels wants to transform into a “mini Newbury Street.’’
“The Fenway is competing with all the best neighborhoods in Boston,’’ said Samuels, who over the last decade has helped build the mixed-use complexes Trilogy and 1330 Boylston. The 800 new apartments in those two projects are more than 95 percent occupied, with prices for one-bedroom units starting at about $2,200 a month.
Over the years, the Red Sox have encouraged the development while also acquiring nearby properties to create a buffer around the ballpark. Team president Larry Lucchino said the new construction is just beginning to showcase the neighborhood’s potential.
“We’re in the midst of a sea change around Fenway,’’ Lucchino said Thursday. “A diversified neighborhood is a plus, no matter what the sports component is. But we also want to keep perspective to make sure we don’t do anything to jeopardize the viability of the ballpark.’’
The recent burst of activity has broken a building slump that stretches back several decades. While the Longwood Medical Area and Back Bay grew up rapidly, the streets around Fenway Park remained largely unchanged, hosting the same tired collection of squat buildings and parking lots.
But in the late 1990s, residents, business owners, and city officials began to construct a new plan for the area. They envisioned Boylston Street as a revitalized urban boulevard with wide sidewalks, new residences, and modern shops and restaurants. The zoning rules were changed to allow taller buildings, making it economically feasible for developers to pursue ambitious new projects.
An obvious sign of the area’s success is its rapidly growing collection of dining and entertainment options. In addition to the House of Blues and sports bars such as Game On, the area has attracted restaurants such as Citizen Public House and the barbecue joint Sweet Cheeks - two restaurants whose menus are geared to serve the area’s new residents as well as Red Sox fans.
A few weeks ago, another new restaurant, Yard House, opened on Brookline Avenue, offering 142 beer taps set against an ambiance that includes abstract paintings and a new patio that spills onto Van Ness Street.
On Tuesday, Van Ness was teeming with activity. One construction crew was beginning to clear more property next to Yard House while a second group of workers was putting the finishing touches on yet another new restaurant called Happy’s.
The casual American restaurant is the creation of Michael Schlow, who owns a group of restaurants that includes Via Matta in the Back Bay and Radius in the financial district. Schlow said he was attracted to the Fenway by a business environment that is finally beginning to reflect its diverse surroundings.
“Its a neighborhood with artists, students, professors, and workers from the Longwood Medical Area,’’ Schlow said. “Fenway Park is only one component of that. This has become a great place to do business, and it’s only going to get better.’’
March 9, 2012
The Boston Globe
Pointing Boston toward future, Fenway Center must go forward
THE EMPTY lots abutting the Mass. Pike as it veers west from the Kenmore Square area are familiar to generations of baseball fans heading to Fenway Park — and don’t conjure up an ounce of nostalgia. They're a trash-strewn mess. They, combined with the air rights above the Pike itself, amount to the rarest of spaces in this tight-knit city: a large development plot with seemingly no historic or neighborhood ties. People should be begging for it to be improved.
But when Newton developer John Rosenthal launched plans to transform the area into a vibrant mix of housing, parking, stores, and offices, the legal dispute that followed proved once again why Boston can be a vexing place to build. The owners of a Brookline Avenue building sued to block Rosenthal's project, claiming an access road to the proposed development would limit some potential uses for their building.
It took an agonizing three years. But on Tuesday, Massachusetts Land Court Judge Harry Grossman finally dismissed the zoning challenge. Now, the five-building Fenway Center project can go forward, providing hundreds of apartments, a separate housing-and-office tower, space for dramatic new retail outlets, solar panels to heat almost the whole area, and a new state-funded commuter-rail station. All that remains is for Rosenthal to secure financing. That's a big if in a challenging real estate market, but the project is valuable enough that lenders should oblige.
For the past decade, developers in Boston have slowly shifted their sights westward, toward the student-and-baseball areas around the Fenway and Kenmore Square. It's a welcome move. Through Boston's long, mixed history of urban planning, there have been some spectacular results (think of Frederick Law Olmsted’s "Emerald Necklace’" of parks), and some unfortunate ones (think of Government Center). But what's become clear is that mixed-use development on a moderate scale — in which people, businesses, stores, and restaurants co-exist in communities that are bustling but not jam-packed — is the best way to preserve Boston's urban vitality.
From the Fenway itself, where the Museum of Fine Arts now opens onto the park and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum sports a new addition, to Brookline Avenue, with new and renovated apartments being developed, a promising neighborhood is growing up. New housing set comfortably amid old parks, museums, legendary hospitals, and famous universities presents a classic Boston tableau. Fenway Center, with its solar panels and transit station, adds to that appealing mixture while pointing smartly toward the future.
March 6, 2012
The Boston Globe
Judge clears way for Fenway Center
State, city say ruling is welcome
By Casey Ross, Globe Staff
The Fenway Center project, stalled for nearly three years by a zoning challenge, is expected to create 1,700 construction jobs.
A court ruling has removed the most significant legal barrier standing in the way of the long-delayed Fenway Center development, a $450 million complex of apartments, stores, and offices to be built over the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Massachusetts Land Court Judge Harry Grossman dismissed a zoning challenge that halted the project nearly three years ago. Grossman, in a ruling made public Tuesday, found that a project neighbor, HRPT Medical Buildings Realty Trust, failed to prove the project would improperly infringe on its property.
The decision clears the way for one of the city’s largest and most transformative construction projects. Fenway Center calls for development of 550 apartments, retail stores, parking garages, and a 27-story office and residential building on parking lots near the ballpark. A new commuter rail station is also slated to be built next to the site.
The five-building complex is designed to be unlike anything now standing in Boston, with solar panels to generate much of its electricity. Part of the development will straddle the turnpike between Brookline Avenue and Beacon Street, where many Red Sox fans now walk to the ballpark through crumbling parking lots.
“We will turn these vacant lots into a vibrant neighborhood,’’ said developer John Rosenthal, who first proposed the project more than a decade ago. “This will be a new gateway from the west and will cover up the large, smelly scar of the turnpike.’’
Rosenthal, who owns the Newton real estate company Meredith Management, said he hopes to start construction early next year. He said he is in negotiations with financial partners and still must secure loans to proceed with the project.
Timothy Bonang, a spokesman for CommonWealth REIT, the parent of HRPT, said the company has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling. The company maintains it is entitled to compensation for what it calls substantial damages to its site.
“Unless the decision is reversed . . . someone may have to pay very significant damages to HRPT so this private development by Mr. Rosenthal can have the roadway access that seems to be planned. Unfortunately, that someone is likely to be the City of Boston or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.’’
State and city officials cheered the decision, noting that Fenway Center will result in hundreds of construction jobs and advance the redevelopment of the neighborhood around the ballpark.
“It is great news that this lawsuit has been decided,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. “I am pleased that the $450 million Fenway Center can now move forward and put 1,700 construction workers back on the job.’’
HRPT’s lawsuit challenged a 2009 Boston Zoning Commission decision allowing construction of Fenway Center, which is situated next to an office building the company owns at 109 Brookline Ave. HRPT asserted that a planned road into the development site would improperly restrict the company’s ability to use and develop its property.
Lawyers for both sides filed motions seeking judgment in their favor more than a year ago. In his ruling, Grossman found that HRPT’s suit lacked merit on multiple fronts, and he concluded that the company failed to show the project would harm its property or the public.
In fact, he wrote that the public will benefit in “a most significant fashion.’’
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is building the new Yawkey Station adjacent to Rosenthal’s project. The project along the Worcester line will give the station longer platforms and a new glass-framed headhouse. It is planned to be the state’s first solar-powered transit station, with energy to come from the panels installed on Rosenthal’s buildings.
Cyndi Roy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said Rosenthal’s project and the new station “will provide a significant economic benefit to the region while allowing for easier access to the area for residents, employees, and visitors to the area. Today’s decision is a great step forward.’’
The state will also spend $6.5 million to build a street off Brookline Avenue that will feed traffic to the transit station, as well as a new section of road that will connect Maitland and Overland streets through the site.
Rosenthal said the first phase of the development will include more than 400 apartments, public open space, 60,000 square feet of retail stores, and about 1,000 parking spaces, including a garage. He said among the first retailers will be Harvest Co-op, which plans to open a an organic grocery store.
The second phase of the project, to be completed in coming years, includes a 27-story tower with additional stores, office space, and apartments. Rosenthal is building the tower over the turnpike, on so-called air-rights he is leasing from the state.
His project is one of several large-scale developments near Fenway Park, where a cadre of builders has slowly begun to transform the scrubby collection of parking lots, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants that used to ring the ballpark.
The area now hosts several upscale restaurants and residential buildings, and is slated to receive additional stores, hotels, and nearly 1,000 apartments over the next several years.
Rosenthal said his and other developments will strengthen the link between Kenmore Square and the nearby Longwood Medical Area.
He said he is talking to several financial partners and expects to complete a deal to move forward with construction in the coming months.
“Boston is one of the top three most appealing real estate markets in the country,’’ he said. “With this ruling, there is going to be a real sense of urgency to complete [the project] that did not exist yesterday.’’
September 14, 2011
The Boston Globe
Tripping up a rebirth
By Brian McGrory, Globe Columnist
Nothing good in this town ever goes unpunished - that's the thought that kept rattling around my head as I walked a breezy maze of parking lots in the shadows of Fenway Park one recent morning, the sounds of traffic filling the air from the Massachusetts Turnpike.
An uncommonly level-headed developer named John Rosenthal has financing to build a $440 million project that would include three apartment buildings, a parking garage, an organic grocer, and a 27-story mixed use tower, all on air rights over the pike and on a parking lot next to it.
His project, called Fenway Center, would create a gleaming neighborhood out of what is now a wasteland. It would employ more than 1,700 construction workers at a time when the trades are getting battered. It would lead to an estimated $200 million in lease payments to the state, $3.6 million a year in city property taxes, two new city streets, and a new commuter rail station that will more than double the stops at Fenway every day.
The state signed off. The city approved it. The MBTA is on board. The neighbors love it. Pull the cranes out of mothballs and get people back to work.
But this being Boston, can it ever really be that easy? Of course not, not when there's a bunch of suits from a Newton-based real estate investment trust named HRPT involved
You see, HRPT, also known as Commonwealth REIT, HRPT Medical Buildings Realty Trust (it has more names than Clark Rockefeller), a multibillion-dollar enterprise with buildings all over the world, owns a massive, nondescript building on Brookline Avenue, with a narrow, roughly 100-space parking lot near Rosenthal’s land. The city will have to cross a sliver of HRPT land to connect two existing streets. Separately, the project might cost HRPT from four to a dozen parking spots.
Rosenthal told HRPT officials that he would give them an equal amount of parking in one of his garages. HRPT’s response, according to Rosenthal: Great, we’ll take 200. Yes, that’s right. You lose a handful of spaces, you demand 200 in return.
When they didn’t get their parking, HRPT did exactly what you would expect executives from a real estate trust would do: They sued to block the whole project.
"It's a stick-up, no question about it," Tom Menino said. "Come on, you’re telling me that for maybe 13 parking spaces we can’t negotiate an agreement?"
And for that, a $440 million project has been stalled since January while a land court judge decides whether to push the HRPT suit to trial or dismiss it.
I called the HRPT managing trustee and president, Adam Portnoy. A vice president, Tim Bonang, called back to say that any easements would hurt their value by reducing the value of their developable land, a disputed assertion. "We’re a publicly traded entity," he said. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the investments. Allowing our property to be devalued would go against our responsibility."
Devalued? The state wants to build a train station about a hundred yards from their side door. There will be new streets next to their weather-worn parking lot. They will be bordered by new development rather than a canyon of traffic.
Bonang said that they did not propose a "trade on parking spaces," but that Rosenthal made an offer of space to offset "the loss of property value" from the project.
By the way, the last time HRPT was in the news was when the Globe’s Steve Syre reported on shareholder complaints a few years ago over the trust's poor earnings and apparent conflicts of interest.
Peter Meade, the head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, called the suit frivolous. In a deposition, city planner Kairos Shen said he was baffled by HRPT's complaints.
"It's a meritless attempt to stop a great project, and they will fail," Rosenthal said yesterday.
Hopefully, he is right. Livelihoods - and the common good - depend on it.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2011 Globe Newspaper Company.