The development company that has agreed to buy the former Boston Globe complex on Morrissey Boulevard is proposing to renovate and re-use the existing newspaper facility as a hub for high-tech jobs, including robotics.
Todd Fremont-Smith, senior vice president of development at Nordblom Co., offered a short but warmly received presentation on the 135 Morrissey project to the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association at its monthly meeting on Monday.
Nordblom Co. agreed to purchase the 16.5-acre Globe property for an undisclosed sum earlier this year, but the final transaction has not yet happened. Fremont-Smith said his company has the property under a purchase and sale agreement, and has been putting in increasing deposits over time. They plan to close the sale in mid-November.
The Burlington-based company has an expansive development footprint around suburban Massachusetts and Greater Boston.
Fremont-Smith told the site’s neighbors that the existing building’s bones and exterior, which are in good condition, could be retrofitted for new uses. Nordblom does not plan to expand the building, he said. Rather, the company will likely remove some of the smaller outbuildings on the site, he added. “We are not going to add any space to this building, we are not going to add any residential units to this building,” he told the gathering.
A multi-use path around the site and a possible rehabilitation of the adjacent “under-maintained” Patten’s Cove in conjunction with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) are also part of the company’s overall vision for the area.
“Our business plan is robotics, life sciences, high tech manufacturing, and creative offices through the building, multi-tenant business departments,” said Fremont-Smith.
Within the building, the company foresees large lab and office spaces with a designated space for robotics. MassRobotics has partnered with the Cambridge Innovation Center, and they are “very interested in looking at a facility, a joint venture here,” he said.
As an amenity for the community as well, the developer is proposing setting aside a section of the site for use as a micro craft brewery with some sort of food component.
“If it’s really bad, I want you to tell me,” Fremont-Smith said, “because I really don’t want to be badgered by you folks for the next two years of my life,” a comment that elicited chuckles from the group. “Life’s too short for both of us, all of us,” he said, later adding, “We do think that strategically it’s a perfect asset.”
But the reception was positive in the room. “I’m really excited about it,” said Savin Hill resident and civic member Paul Nutting in a phone interview on Tuesday, “especially the open space components, potential for jobs, internships, essentially generating a new economic engine for Dorchester.”
Nutting added that he hopes any Patten’s Cove improvements maintain the state park without aesthetically folding it into the proposed tech complex. Still, he is bullish about the potential for the neighborhood.
The sturdy concrete frame and slab construction means the main building itself has remained in good shape over the decades. The site’s proximity to JFK/UMass station and access to Morrissey Boulevard as a throughway make it attractive for pulling skilled workers down the Red Line corridor, Fremont-Smith said.
“Today, the Red Line is really a critical link across Boston,” he added. “It’s called ‘the brain train,’ and we see this as an opportunity to connect this site back to Kendall Square.”
Rents in Cambridge’s tech hub are booming, he noted, forcing residents out due in part to real estate acquisition by foreign investors. The Seaport, also thriving, suffers from limited transit options, Fremont-Smith said. The Globe site is “transit rich,” and an accessible building of that size with large open areas, high ceilings, and good bones is a rarity.
“There are very few places in Boston where you can get 100,000 feet under one roof,” he added.
The Globe had called Morrissey Boulevard home since 1958, until it decamped to downtown earlier this year. Nordblom is the third bidder for the sprawling parcel, after two earlier offers fell apart for financing reasons, Globe officials have said previously.
Prior bidders for the Globe may have been discouraged by a component of the 2011 Columbia Point Master Plan citing the potential for a mini-neighborhood on the property with new roads and infrastructure, a vision that seemed to ask for a mixed-use complex similar to Somerville’s bustling Assembly Row.
“It’s our position that that’s not the right place for Assembly Row,” Fremont-Smith said, “and it’s also not the right time in the market cycle for Assembly Row.” Such a project would also add traffic, he noted.
However, the Master Plan does include provisions for the building remaining in its entirety.
Civic member Don Walsh, who worked on the Master Plan, said the Nordblom pitch “is not inconsistent with the Master Plan.” He expressed enthusiasm for the idea and said he hopes other major parcels in the area could find some sort of cohesion, add mixed-use components, and include community benefits in their planning.
They are taking points from the Master Plan on connectivity, Fremont-Smith said. Nordblom hopes to work with DCR to improve community access to both Patten’s Cove and the surrounding neighborhood.
One factor still to be considered: DCR is in the design phase for a years-long renovation of Morrissey Boulevard. Mayor Martin Walsh weighed in on a proposed lane drop in September, echoing concerns from many residents that it would clog traffic in exchange for additional pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.
Fremont-Smith said that Morrissey should be a “beautiful road,” but probably keeping the full three lanes of traffic, referencing an earlier presentation at the Tuesday meeting from state Rep. Dan Hunt on the lane drops.
The developer’s final presentation of a more open, connected site with green space improvements was met with borderline-rapturous applause from most of the attendees in the packed meeting.
Nordblom is moving ahead enthusiastically, Fremont-Smith said, having already consulted with the Boston Planning and Development Agency and the mayor’s office. “If the neighborhood is behind it, it could happen very quickly,” he said.
They certainly seemed to be open to the conversation. As civic member Bruce Shatswell put it: “This, sir, is truly a vision.”