Fenway Building Boom Hints at Possibilities, Perils for Wrigleyville

Fenway Park, home of Boston’s beloved Red Sox, is a beacon for activity. The neighborhood surrounding the field is experiencing a dramatic transformation, turning the area into a showcase of old and new. It is a dynamic that offers a potential preview of what’s to come in Wrigleyville — with all its possibilities and pitfalls. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

It’s a balmy, bright spring afternoon, and Boylston Street is alive.

College kids lug bags of groceries to their gleaming new apartments. Joggers trot past a busy sidewalk cafe, where businessmen in suit jackets and students in shorts tap away on laptops as they sip coffee and lattes.

Historic Fenway Park a block to the north, its hulking light towers looming over a green-painted exterior, is an afterthought at midday. Baseball will not be played there for six more hours.

Yet the ballpark, home of Boston’s beloved Red Sox, is a beacon for activity. The neighborhood surrounding the field is experiencing a dramatic transformation, turning the area into a showcase of old and new. It is a dynamic that offers a potential preview of what’s to come in Wrigleyville — with all its possibilities and pitfalls.

A bevy of similarities exist between the development in the Boston and Chicago neighborhoods: new owners who poured millions of dollars into renovations of the oldest ballparks in the major leagues, a push for more offseason events and exclusive access to the streets outside the gates. On the field, both clubs, with their dedicated regional following, snapped much-ballyhooed championship droughts.

While the construction near Clark and Addison is in the beginning stages, the changes in Boston are a decade in the making and the development boom has accelerated.

“The neighborhood had not fully realized its potential,” said Jonathan Greeley, the director of development review for the Boston Planning & Development Agency. “It was a hidden jewel lying in plain sight.”

Businesses and city planners in Boston tout the advantages and opportunities of the new construction, but longtime residents are less enthusiastic about the changes.

Many of those who have lived near Fenway Park for decades are concerned about soaring housing costs, sun-blocking towers, chain retail displacing locally owned businesses, and the noisy mayhem of offseason concerts and events at the ballpark.

“Anywhere you can see space or area is basically guaranteed to be built up,” said Dolores Boogdanian, who lives a few blocks west of the ballpark. “Parts of it, what you liked about Boston, is being lost. Some people are going to say that’s progress. I’d say it’s losing that specialness.”

Boom times

The baseball team’s recent success and a commitment to stay at Fenway Park, combined with a healthier economy, encouraged developers to invest in the neighborhood.

The Red Sox captured two additional world championships after winning their first title in 86 years in 2004. That same year, city planners, community members and business leaders completed a strategic plan for the Fenway, as the neighborhood is known, introducing new zoning regulations to encourage mixed-use development and open the door for larger, taller buildings, Greeley said.

Beyond baseball, the Fenway — the ballpark was named for the neighborhood that existed before it opened in 1912 — offers the classic appeal: a location west of downtown Boston near two university campuses, next to the Emerald Necklace parklands, near a major medical campus, adjacent to the Massachusetts Turnpike with access to public transit. The popular allure of the Red Sox is the cherry on top.

Down the street from a cycling workout studio, a chain pizza place and a microbrewery, yellow-helmeted construction crews work atop the giant crane on an emerging apartment tower and the scaffolding of another across the road.

One of the biggest drivers of new construction in the neighborhood is the development company Samuels & Associates, which has been changing the area building by building.

Peter Sougarides, principal with Samuels, said the company believed the neighborhood had unique potential, and they worked with community leaders in an effort to sketch out plans for development that would be welcomed by all.

“Most people fear the unknown, and we have a beloved ballpark and (Chicago) has a beloved ballpark where things have been the same for 50, 60, 70 years and how can anyone think of changing that?” Sougarides said. “And the takeaway of that would be: Don’t fear the unknown. Don’t fear the development. And that’s the conversation we’ve had with the neighborhood.”

The Red Sox generally view new development as a positive as long as construction doesn’t alter the overall spirit of the neighborhood ballpark experience, said Dave Friedman, the team’s senior vice president of legal and government affairs.

“We’re concerned generally about Manhattanization of Fenway Park,” Friedman said. “It would be a concern if you had tall, large buildings towering over the ballpark.”

Some fans come to see the ballpark more than the team, and the Red Sox especially want to preserve the views of the downtown skyline beyond right field, Friedman said.

Most of the development is happening on the opposite side of the ballpark, where thousands of condominiums and apartments have been constructed. Ten building projects have been recently completed, are under construction or are under review by the city’s planning and development agency.

Next to a parking lot and a Tasty Burger, office workers emerge from Samuels’ new Van Ness building, also home to apartments and a Target. The former site of a McDonald’s is now The Veridian, another developer’s shiny apartment tower with ground-floor commercial space, where a studio runs $2,350 a month and a three-bedroom costs $5,025.

The new buildings have meant plenty of opportunity for retailers to try to capture foot traffic.

Adam Hunter, retail operations manager for the CrimsonBikes Giant Boston shop, a sparkling ground-floor shop two short blocks from Fenway Park, says the shop caters to both residents in the nearby apartment buildings and those who walk past the store on their way to the ballpark.

The bicycle shop has been open since 2011, as the construction was beginning to blossom.

“It’s kinda been cool to see that promise become fulfilled,” Hunter said. “I think the people who put the shop here knew what they were doing. We came in with the promise of the live-work-shop type of space, and that would increase traffic flow. It’s taken up until about now to see that.”

The changes will continue in the fall, when construction begins on the Fenway Center, a $600 million, 1.3 million-square-foot project of apartments, retail and office buildings that will rise around a renovated train station and a deck over the Massachusetts Turnpike, about a block from the Green Monster.

“The evolution, I think, has become a win-win,” said John E. Rosenthal, president of the Meredith Management Corp., the Fenway Center developer. “And it has turned a neighborhood with surface parking lots and unused land into a great, real neighborhood. It has shops and great restaurants and places to live. It has become a diverse culture.”

A changing landscape

In the decades before the boom in Boston, residents were drawn to the affordable rents, central location, proximity to jobs and access to green space. The ballpark was a novelty, more of a presence to be tolerated than a reason to live there, residents said.

Similar to Chicago, the area was known for an abundance of bars, especially those along Lansdowne Street behind Fenway Park, and as the home to college students. Most of the commercial buildings were two or three stories.

The Red Sox and Boston University to the north long controlled the neighborhood, Rosenthal said, “fighting over it to the point where nothing could be built.” Things began to change under the John Henry ownership group, which purchased the club in 2002.

“The ownership embraced things that people might want to do outside of the park instead of blocking things that they might have to compete with,” Rosenthal said.

From the first-base concourse of Fenway Park, the Boylston Street skyline forms a sparkling silver wall to the south. Longtime residents worry about the impact of the towering new buildings, the lack of parking spots, the jammed streets, the chain stores and an influx of people packed into a small area.

“You can be sure this is not going to stay as a Tasty Burger,” said Lauren Dewey Platt, chairman of the Mission Hill/Fenway Neighborhood Trust, gesturing to the nearby lot where people line up for hamburgers.

The area caters more and more to young professionals and college students who can afford it. The neighborhood, according to city statistics, is 66 percent white, 18 percent Asian, 8 percent Hispanic or Latino and 6 percent black. Nearly 41 percent of residents are between ages 20 and 24.

“I’ve lived in Boston for 10 years, and this feels like a different city,” said Natalie Finstad, who was enjoying a salad on a sidewalk bench at the Pavement Coffeehouse. “It’s vibrant and filled with a lot of new places.”

Finstad, 32, works nearby and frequents the area’s restaurants. While she enjoys coming to the neighborhood, she realizes redevelopment has a ripple effect.

“There is a concern of gentrification,” Finstad said. “With the pricing, it’s really hard to find an affordable place. It’s a problem from the standpoint of creating a society with a diversity of all kinds of people.”

Josh Zakim, the city councilor who represents the Fenway, said development near the ballpark has been good for the neighborhood, but the potential downside of future proposals needs to be considered.

Affordable housing, he said, is a challenge throughout Boston and a concern in the area.

While the ballpark and the Red Sox continue to be a focal point, the tall new buildings have etched a new neighborhood skyline and changed the aesthetic of the surrounding area.

“Fenway Park is almost an afterthought in this neighborhood in terms of what is visual,” Finstad said.

The new sidewalk seating is nice, said Kristen Mobilia, who lives two blocks south of the ballpark and is a board member of The Fenway Garden Society, but the traffic-clogged Boylston Street makes for a noisy, exhaust-filled environment where the new buildings cast long shadows on the street below.

“You can’t see the sun on the street anymore,” Mobilia said.

Greeley, with the city planning agency, said the city is sensitive to residents’ concerns. The aim, he said, is for “active reuse” and to make the neighborhood “a year-round beacon.”

“Our goal is to always balance the livability with the event-based economy that has developed there,” Greeley said. The objective “is to have the old and the new and knit them together.”

The goal aligns with the Rickettses’ Wrigleyville plans for blending more upscale amenities with the historic ballpark and developing the fan plaza as a destination on baseball off days. The team-owned Hotel Zachary is under construction on Clark Street across from the new office and retail building, and work on a privately owned development on Addison Street is underway. It is a picture that excites many fans but also leaves residents and existing business owners fretting about the ramifications.

Bill Richardson, the former longtime president of the Fenway Civic Association, said the danger is squeezing out the middle class and turning the neighborhood into a “playground for the rich.” Richardson, a semiretired window-blinds salesman who grew up in Boston, said the new construction and offseason events became too much.

So he packed up and sold his place. He now lives in Vermont.

Richardson said when people ask, “‘Don’t you miss the Fenway?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t.'”

Street party

The Red Sox are allowed to shut down a stretch of Yawkey Way, along the third base side of the ballpark, for an hour and a half before every home game. The team sets up turnstiles in the street, allowing only fans with tickets into the block once the ballpark gates open.

This setup offers another similarity to the Cubs’ recent ballpark-area makeover, where a new plaza along Wrigley’s third base side is intended only for ticketed patrons before games.

In the lead-up to baseball, Yawkey Way turns into a street festival. Fans can buy drinks and food from booths lining the street. Before a game against the Orioles earlier this month, people danced and sang along with a live band playing Grateful Dead songs. A man on stilts, a juggler and a face painter entertained kids and parents.

“As soon as you walk into Yawkey Way, you’re home,” said Kristin Beckler, 34, of Norton, Mass., after she had her picture taken with the Red Sox mascot, Wally the Green Monster. “You feel like this is Boston. It’s so welcoming and everyone is so friendly.”

While fans revel in the jovial atmosphere, the ballclub’s takeover of the street, which can be used as a cut-through to the transit station and the nearby neighborhood of Kenmore Square, irks many residents.

“The city says they ‘granted them use,’ ” Dewey Platt said. “I call it ownership. It’s a public street.”

Zakim understands the residents’ concerns and has looked for balance.

“I’m always cautious about turning public property over to a private entity, even something as beloved as the Red Sox,” Zakim said. He notes that technically the public has a right to enter the street without a ticket, as long as they have an escort.

The Red Sox’s desire for more offseason events, including concerts at the park — a phenomenon familiar to Cubs fans — also has ballooned into a major issue for some nearby residents. Ballgames were an understood part of daily life, but the blasting sounds of rock acts and the more boisterous crowds they attract were not, residents say.

Both Wrigley Field and Fenway Park have hosted occasional concerts featuring big-name artists for years, but this year both are presenting whole seasons of non-baseball entertainment, with 10 dates at the Cubs’ home and eight in Boston.

Friedman, the Red Sox representative, said there’s been plenty of interest in concerts from neighborhood residents. Since 2016, about 18,000 concert tickets have been sold to people living in the Fenway and Kenmore Square. The team “wants to exist in positive harmony with the neighborhood,” Friedman said.

Zakim and Friedman said the Red Sox are working with the city on better security and cleanup efforts on concert nights, as well as sound-dampening technology. The team also offers special $9 baseball game tickets to neighborhood residents. But that might not be enough for some residents.

“It’s like America’s favorite pastime turned into America’s new favorite pastime: making money,” Mobilia said.

Dewey Platt, who lives about two blocks from Fenway Park, said concerts are “wreaking havoc on the quality of life.” Neighborhood resident Steve Wolf agrees.

“People don’t really see this as a place where people live,” Wolf said. “They behave in a way that would make your head explode if you did it in your neighborhood.”

Wolf said the added offseason events and the Yawkey Way street blockade are examples of the team’s powerful clout within the city.

“No politicians in Boston ever think about saying no to the Red Sox,” Wolf said. “It just feels like they’re just going to push and push. I don’t think that should come at the expense of my quality of life or my neighbors’.”

The blend of the old and new is still a work in progress. It remains to be seen how much of the old will remain and what that ultimately means for the character of the neighborhood near the old ballpark.

“I think it’s sad that when this development happens and stores move in, a lot of them are chains,” said Boogdanian, the resident who lives a few blocks from the park. “You don’t have that sense of uniqueness of the city anymore. You’re just Anytown, USA. You’re just a spot on the map.”

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