Cause development John Rosenthal is active on gun control, homelessness, and the environment -- and in his spare time is a developer BY PAUL MCMORROW PHOTOGRAPHS BY: MICHAEL MANNING January 15, 2013
John Rosenthal's Blackberry lit up. Media requests poured in from NECN, WCVB, and WBUR. MSNBC wanted to talk. Even the Arabic-language network Al Jazeera found its way to his door. The crush of attention was not a pleasant development. News outlets call Rosenthal when terrible things happen, and a very terrible thing indeed had happened. Twenty-seven people were dead after a shooting rampage in a Connecticut school, and grim commentary on the malignant spread of high-powered weaponry was in demand. It has become a shockingly familiar routine, and Rosenthal answered the bell once again, his pain visible.
He looked shaken as he sat on the news set at NECN, parsing the specifications of the guns that a loner named Adam Lanza had allegedly just used to massacre 20 first-graders. Asked whether anyone could go out and pick up the assault weapons Lanza had employed, Rosenthal replied that a would-be gun buyer could, but could do even better: “You could pick up a grenade launcher attachment in New Hampshire for $190.”
For Rosenthal, the founder and chairman of Stop Handgun Violence, these media blitzes have become semi-regular events. They’re almost always coupled with some dreaded event: a shootout at a Colorado movie theater, a Wisconsin temple, an Arizona supermarket, or a Virginia university. It’s during these spasms of violence that news anchors tend to ask where guns are coming from. They call up Rosenthal, the Newton businessman and staunch gun control advocate, and he obliges by unloading a barrage of statistics about lax gun laws (33 states host cash and carry, no-background-check-needed gun shows) and endemic gun violence (an average of 83 Americans die from gunshots every day).
Shooting sprees are usually followed by calls to tighten federal gun laws. The last time Washington followed through on those calls was 1994; since then, Congress has ducked any action on guns, leaving advocates like Rosenthal shouting into the wind. Gun massacres break through this inertia because they make the consequences of gun violence real, but then they fade away. That’s why, for the past 17 years, Rosenthal has been working to bring the same immediacy to the grim, numbing, overwhelmingly ordinary, daily gun violence that fills the space between shooting sprees.
John Rosenthal isn’t a household name, but anyone who’s ever been to Fenway Park, or driven down the Massachusetts Turnpike, knows his work, and his politics. Rosenthal owns the most famous billboard in Boston. It stands 20 feet high and is 250 feet long, sandwiched between the Turnpike and the Green Monster, urging local and national lawmakers to toughen the laws surrounding gun access. That’s enough to jam up Rosenthal’s phone whenever a gun tragedy strikes.
The iconic Fenway billboard has been just one piece of the whirlwind of activity surrounding Rosenthal. He founded, and chairs, a major anti-homelessness foundation in Boston. He’s a solar power developer and an environmental activist. And one more thing: Rosenthal is an affordable housing advocate who’s trying to pull off a $450 million development, Fenway Center, that would be the first project built above the Turnpike in three decades.
Rosenthal’s world is one big matrix of interconnected issues and pursuits, so when the gun issue did find him, it came by way of his role in real estate. When he acquired the Lansdowne Street parking garage in the early 1990s, he soon realized a billboard on top of it gave him a perch to reach tens of thousands of people each day. With the scourge of gang-fueled gun violence tearing at American cities, he found a message to preach. He has become the issue’s most prominent local crusader. However, Rosenthal is the first to concede another grim truth in the war on guns: It’s a battle he and his allies have been losing badly. The country’s powerful gun lobby has racked up one victory after another in recent years in loosening restrictions on gun sales and ownership, leaving Rosenthal increasingly pessimistic about the ability to get through to those in power.
How it will all shake out is unclear, but there are early signs that this time could be different. The White House has promised to file broad gun control legislation early in the new year, and a few of the NRA’s staunchest Democratic supporters are signaling a new openness on the issue. If something tangible comes of it all, the timing may serve as a hopeful coda to the tenure of Boston’s prominent gun control billboard. Rosenthal is embarking on the biggest real estate development of his career, a project that will likely spell the end for the billboard. But any misgivings Rosenthal might have about giving up his outsized platform would be more than made up for by finally seeing the country take action on the message it has been sending writ large.
Shock and awe: Rosenthal's famous Fenway billboard.
RESTLESS AND OBSESSIVE
John Rosenthal is a real estate developer, but real estate isn’t the extent of his full-time job. When Rosenthal joined the real estate firm his father founded, Meredith Management, nearly 30 years ago, he did so on one condition: “I had to be free to spend as much time as I needed on social issues, to nurture my soul,” Rosenthal says. He was coming to Meredith after spending several years as a full-time activist who worked construction jobs to pay the bills, and he continued his activism after joining the development firm. So now, as Meredith’s president, Rosenthal is driving efforts to construct a massive apartment and office complex over the Turnpike in Boston, even as he remains enmeshed in the two nonprofits he founded and chairs, Friends of Boston’s Homeless and Stop Handgun Violence.
In Rosenthal’s world, there are no clean lines separating his organizing from his business. He’s pushing several issues in different directions at the same time. He’s involved in developing affordable housing, and in building solar panels, and in organizing against the nuclear power industry, and in maneuvering for gun control, and in raising money for Boston’s homelessness prevention programs. The walls of his Newton office are plastered with posters of old Stop Handgun Violence billboards. Wiley, his Portuguese Water Dog, who ambles freely through Meredith Management’s hallways, sleeps underneath a sign protesting the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. In conversation, Rosenthal leaps rapidly between the Fenway, the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the mass movie theater shooting at Aurora, Colorado. On one November afternoon, Rosenthal was fielding phone calls from the pension fund that’s sinking $450 million into his Turnpike development, and waiting on the publication of a WBUR op-ed column attacking the National Rifle Association.
“I think my wife would say I have ADD,” Rosenthal says. “But I don’t know anyone who’s been really successful that isn’t restless and somewhat obsessive and imbalanced, you know? How could you be good at anything unless you focus to an obsessive point? So I obsess about a lot of different things.” And in Rosenthal’s mind, the things he obsesses over most—guns, affordable housing, the environment, homelessness, and the influence of money in politics —are all connected. They’re all related strains of an overarching justice agenda. “I can’t tolerate injustice, and I can’t tolerate dishonesty,” he says. “Those given a lot need to give a lot, or they get isolated and crazy.”
Above: Rosenthal shows of a model of Fenway Center, his $450 million housing complex.
Rosenthal, 56, doesn’t fit neatly within Boston’s insular real estate community. He prefers wearing button-down shirts with no tie to designer suits and power ties. Rosenthal’s social circle consists of neighbors, hockey buddies, and people who operate in the same political and social activist circles he works. Mark Erlich, the executive secretary-treasurer of the New England carpenters union (and board member of MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth), says Rosenthal is the only developer he trades reading lists with. He doesn’t spread political contributions around as the cost of winning development approvals; in the past decade, former state senators Cheryl Jacques and Steve Tolman have received more of Rosenthal’s money than Boston Mayor Tom Menino. His office, in a refurbished sail loft, is furnished with couches that feature a fading, seriously dated fabric pattern. It contains a dusty TV-VCR combination set that looks like it hasn’t been touched in a decade. Developers steering half-billion-dollar Boston projects typically don’t operate out of such environs. And all things being equal, Rosenthal would just as soon take his meetings outside, to a picnic table along the Charles River.
Rosenthal is unsparing in his critique of his political foes, like when he calls the NRA “racist, classist, paranoid, and undemocratic.” But he also speaks with a disarming gentleness. Kevin Burke, the former state public safety secretary and Essex County district attorney, and an old hockey friend, says that Rosenthal is “zealous without being a zealot. He has an obvious passion for [gun control], but he does it in a thoughtful, decent, humble way.”
“John is persistent about what he believes in,” says Michael Ross, a Boston city councilor who has been working on issues connected to Fenway Center since his election in 1999. “He comes from a place where he believes we have a larger responsibility than just putting up buildings, that there’s more that binds us.”
Rosenthal, who grew up in Newton, traces his activism to a Holocaust film he watched while in high school. He struggled with the realization that, had he been born a generation earlier in Germany, instead of in suburban Boston, he’d be dead. “I have no tolerance for injustice, whether it’s social, economic, or political, partly because I can’t reconcile why I’m so lucky, why I wasn’t thrown into some concentration camp and exterminated,” he says. So, since he’s been a teenager, Rosenthal has been “chomping at the bit to get out and try to change the world.” He and his wife, Maureen Berkley, who works with him at the development company, have no children, which has left Rosenthal with lots of time for making change.
He enrolled at Syracuse University, but dropped out after less than two years. Rosenthal was disillusioned by the Vietnam War and terrified by the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. “I didn’t think I was going to live to be 30 because of the nuclear threat,” he recalls. “So college lost its importance.” He volunteered as a full-time anti-nuclear organizer, and worked as a carpenter on the side. He was arrested protesting outside the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire in 1977. Rosenthal spent two weeks in jail, and then went back for another three weeks, rather than pay a $100 fine. His jailers cut his hair and shaved his beard; while in jail, Rosenthal survived an attack by a neo-Nazi, and befriended a Moonie car thief. His parents, Rosenthal says, “were horrified.”
The Seabrook protests emboldened Rosenthal. He became convinced that the anti-nuclear movement needed a precedent-setting victory. The lowest hanging fruit, he decided, was the Diablo Canyon plant. The southern California complex was being built less than three miles from an active earthquake fault. So Rosenthal moved to California. He organized against the plant and built homes on the side. Anti-nuclear activists staged a massive protest at the plant in 1981; Rosenthal was arrested while storming the beachfront nuclear site from the ocean. But Rosenthal took his activism against Diablo Canyon past civil disobedience. He kept his hair cut close, wore a sport coat, and courted hundreds of local businesses. He then used anti-nuclear sentiment in the business community to press Gov. Jerry Brown, who eventually came out against the plant. He courted the media, debating an official from the plant’s builder, Pacific Gas and Electric, live on the Today Show. And none of it was enough. Rosenthal saw the writing on the wall when President Ronald Reagan began stacking his administration with executives from Bechtel Corp., the large nuclear contractor. “It was a slam dunk,” Rosenthal recalls. “They were getting their license. I knew I didn’t want to live next to an operating nuclear power plant on an earthquake fault. I had to get out of there.”
Rosenthal accepted an offer to come home and work in his father’s real estate business. Development, Rosenthal says, boils down to organizing and construction, and he’d just spent several years enmeshed in both. His family, once horrified by his activism, had come around to his side after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. “They said, ‘Oh my God, he was right!’” he recalls. “And rather than going to cocktail parties and having people say, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry to hear about your wayward son who dropped out of college and got arrested,’ it’s like, ‘Wow, my son’s on the Today Show!’”
Rosenthal didn’t set out to become a gun control activist. The issue found him, through the Lansdowne Street garage that bears his billboard.The garage was a victim of the banking crisis that swept through New England in the early 1990s. Rosenthal scooped the garage out of foreclosure, and soon after, he says, leased a billboard on the garage’s roof to “a bank that was willing to pay a ridiculous amount of money for that visibility on the Mass. Pike.” Rosenthal hadn’t known what a prime location he had acquired until he cut the bank billboard deal; once he knew tens of thousands people were looking at his new garage every day, he began brainstorming ways to use the property’s visibility to make an impact on public policy. He didn’t know what that policy would be, until a friend mentioned to him that 15 American kids were dying every day from gunfire. That tripped Rosenthal’s outrage wire, and the deeper he dug into guns, the more worked up he got.
“One-hundred-six families were burying family members every day,” Rosenthal says. “Imagine if hamburgers caused 106 deaths a day. You don’t think we’d regulate meatpackers? The deeper I got into it, the more unjust the situation became to me. It was just so obvious the special interests controlled things, that Congress allowed 106 people to be massacred every day, by choice.”
At the time, Boston was emerging from a period of severe gun violence. The federal assault weapons ban, passed in 1994, had opened up a nationwide debate on gun control. Rosenthal dove into that debate head-first. As a gun owner himself, he believed it should be relatively easy to slash gun accidents and violence without impacting lawful gun possession. He created Stop Handgun Violence as a vehicle for making this argument.
Rosenthal co-founded Stop Handgun Violence in 1995, alongside Michael Kennedy. The two were old friends with complementary skill sets. Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, was the political door-opener with a family history of gun-related tragedies, while Rosenthal was the seasoned activist with the prime real estate. Together, they jumped into a simmering gun control debate on Beacon Hill. And, thanks to Rosenthal’s garage along the Pike, they dragged the gun debate off the hill, and into the streets.
The billboard Rosenthal stuck on the side of his garage is an enormous thing. Whether you’re walking up Brookline Avenue on the way to Fenway Park or stuck in traffic on the Pike, Rosenthal’s billboard is inescapable. It’s designed to stop you cold. Stop Handgun Violence’s first billboard debuted in October 1995, with the faces of 15 dead children smiling out over the Pike, under the words, “The cost of handguns keeps going up. Fifteen kids killed every day.” Doug Houston, the advertising executive who had just generated a series of brutal anti-tobacco television ads for the state Department of Public Health, directed creative efforts on the billboard. He took the statistic that had jarred Rosenthal into action, and put 15 young faces on it. “I love how unique every picture is. Every picture had its own personality, just like those kids,” says Rosenthal, speaking only days before the Connecticut shooting and the gut-wrenching coverage that would follow with photos of 20 eager-eyed first-graders.
The billboard created a sensation. It put public momentum behind an ongoing conversation about gun control in the State House. And it made Stop Handgun Violence the public face of gun control in Massachusetts. Soon, Rosenthal was appearing at press conferences alongside Scott Harshbarger, the state’s attorney general. Harshbarger was marshaling a coalition of law enforcement and victims’ groups and pressing for tighter checks on gun access, and he was directing a controversial effort to regulate gun sales and manufacturing through the attorney general’s sweeping consumer protection powers. And there was Rosenthal, standing nearby the AG, waving a gun in one hand, a teddy bear in the other, asking why the teddy bear should be more heavily regulated than the gun.
Massachusetts passed the nation’s toughest handgun law in 1998. Harshbarger argues that Massachusetts was able to push the law through a Democratic legislature, and have it embraced by a Republican governor, in part because Stop Handgun Violence mobilized citizen activists in a way that didn’t exist in other states.
“John put together a pretty broad-based coalition,” Harshbarger says. “They were pioneers.” Rosenthal’s billboard, Harshbarger says, “was a brilliant piece of showmanship. It was vivid. It was a major educational tool that helped make the case.”
Harshbarger compares Stop Handgun Violence to the citizen coalitions that helped score a string of victories over tobacco firms in the early 1990s. For Rosenthal, though, the model is anti-nuclear activism. The Diablo Canyon protests taught him that “it’s businesspeople, with their influence and resources and clout, that can really move the needle on public policy.”
Anti-nuclear activism also taught Rosenthal how to mount a campaign: Focus on winning one victory, establish a precedent-setting model, and then scale it up. The 1998 gun control law Gov. Paul Cellucci signed was Stop Handgun Violence’s model. It was a success that could be replicated in state houses across the country, and in Washington. There’s no doubt that the strict Massachusetts gun laws worked. Mandatory trigger locks and safe storage requirements all but eliminated accidental gun deaths by children in Massachusetts, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1999 and 2010, the last year for which data was available, the state’s overall gun death rate was one-third the national average and second lowest only to Hawaii.
The state has cut its gun fatality rate simply by requiring that gun owners lock up their guns when leaving their homes; by requiring gun dealers to operate out of stores, and to perform background checks; and by requiring manufacturers to build in safety features that prevent accidental shootings. “It’s just not that difficult,” Rosenthal says. “It’s the politics that are ridiculous. It’s special interest politics, and spineless members of Congress that refuse to put public safety over special interest campaign contributions.”
Washington, DC, was the city where Rosenthal’s activist playbook—find a model that works, score a victory, and then scale it up—hit a wall. Stop Handgun Violence’s political connections still held. Michael Kennedy provided an introduction to the Clinton White House, via his brother-in-law Andrew Cuomo. Victoria Kennedy took Michael’s place on Rosenthal’s board after his 1997 death; she and Rosenthal pressed Hillary Clinton on gun control, and they had Ted Kennedy’s muscle in the Senate. It wasn’t close to enough. Democrats blamed Clinton’s assault weapons ban for their 1994 loss of the House of Representatives, and ducked votes on guns thereafter. The Bush years saw the assault weapons ban sunset out of existence, the enactment of a legal shield law for gun manufacturers and sellers, and the passage of restrictive legislation that prohibited federal officials from disclosing where crime guns were coming from. George W. Bush inspired some classic Rosenthal billboards, including a gigantic AK-47 labeled, “Coming to a home near you,” in honor of the assault weapons ban’s 2004 expiration; a cut-up mock ransom note from the NRA bragging, “We have your president and Congress”; and a bitterly cheery faux-neon number advertising gun shows without ID requirements or background checks where criminals and terrorists are welcome. As Rosenthal’s Fenway billboards got bigger and badder, though, the cause they promoted sank deeper into the political wilderness.
Rosenthal expected Bush to line up strongly behind the NRA. But he was deeply stung when the Obama White House ducked legislation on assault weapons and background checks, even as Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. Rosenthal saw it first-hand, during a trip to Washington he calls “one of the most depressing days of my life.”
Rosenthal and Burke, the old hockey buddy who was then Gov. Deval Patrick’s public safety secretary, flew to Washington in early 2009 to sell the White House on Massachusetts-style gun legislation. David Simas, a former Patrick aide working for Obama, lined up a meeting with Tino Cuellar, the president’s special assistant for justice and regulatory policy. According to Burke and Rosenthal, Cuellar agreed with their critique of federal gun laws, but the White House had been chased off any gun fight. “There was sympathy and the desire to do something, but the time wasn’t right,” Burke recalls. “It clearly wasn’t going to be a first-term issue.” Rosenthal points to a March 2009 letter that 65 Democratic congressmen sent to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging the administration to back off a renewed assault weapons ban. The implicit threat, Rosenthal says, was, “Don’t touch guns if you want health care.”
It’s a cold, rainy Monday morning in December, but John Rosenthal is outside, trampling through the woods in Belmont, taking Wiley on his morning walk. The bleak weather matches his mood—he’s still shaken by the scale and brutality of the previous Friday’s school shooting. “The sadness is unbearable this time around,” he says, “the thought of 20 babies, scared children, being individually assassinated with an assault weapon.” The concentrated outburst of violence shocked the country and cracked open a discussion on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips, but the killing didn’t start or end with Connecticut. Over the past decade, an average of eight American children have been shot to death every single day. So, the odds were that, when Rosenthal walked his dog that Monday morning, random gunfire had killed more children since Friday than the Connecticut school shooter had.
“Where do we place the blame? It has to be with us,” Rosenthal says. “Shame on us for allowing Congress to be bought by the NRA.” Rosenthal’s heart tells him that the attitude he and Burke ran into in Washington—that background checks and assault weapons were politically toxic —can’t stand forever. Even before the Connecticut shooting, billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was pledging to use his fortune to start a conversation on guns, and incoming Sen. Elizabeth Warren was telling Rosenthal he could count on her to push federal gun curbs. The Connecticut shooting represents a possible watershed moment, since it shook previously solidly pro-NRA senators and congressmen into saying they were open to at least talking about assault weapons. Those are small openings, but they’re more than the folks on Rosenthal’s side have seen since 1994. If the watershed moment has actually arrived, it’s happening at a time when Rosenthal’s day job is bringing the last days of Rosenthal’s famed billboard along the Pike into focus.
Rosenthal has been chasing down Fenway Center for 15 years now. Like Stop Handgun Violence, the project sprang from Rosenthal’s parking garage on Lansdowne Street. Prior to Fenway Center, Rosenthal’s development company had focused on developing affordable and mixed-income housing in the suburbs, and in cities like Springfield. But when the Turnpike Authority put development rights for a swath of roadway between Brookline Avenue and Lansdowne Street out to bid, Rosenthal bit. He figured he could get a leg up over other developers by rolling the acre of parking he already owned into any development over the Turnpike. “The garage’s highest and best use really was with the air rights behind it,” Rosenthal says.
Air rights development projects in Boston are notoriously difficult undertakings. The Prudential Center, opened in 1964, and Copley Place, completed almost 30 years ago, are the city’s only two Turnpike development successes. Most efforts end in spectacular failure. Two projects have blown up in the time Rosenthal has been pushing Fenway Center. His own is still alive, in part because Boston Mayor Tom Menino brokered a deal between Rosenthal and the Red Sox that moved Fenway Center across Brookline Ave., away from Fenway Park’s Green Monster, to a triangular parcel running along Beacon Street. The current Fenway Center site incorporates a new, expanded Yawkey commuter rail station into a 27-story complex that will include 550 mixed-income apartments, office space, and an organic grocer. Rosenthal plans on topping the project with a huge solar panel installation. He has lined up an investor to sink $450 million in cash into the project, and hopes to break ground in the spring.
Fenway Center is a capstone project for Rosenthal. It’s not just that the project will change the face of the Fenway and put construction cranes over the Pike for the first time in three decades. Fenway Center is being built around smart growth and transit-oriented principles. It’s incorporating green energy and creating affordable housing. It is, in many ways, the embodiment of Rosenthal’s social philosophy. And it also will likely spell the end of Rosenthal’s iconic billboard.
The Red Sox, who are now Rosenthal’s partners in Fenway Center, have been eyeing Rosenthal’s Lansdowne Street garage for years. The advent of Fenway Center will make the garage expendable. Rosenthal expects the team, which has been aggressive about controlling the real estate around Fenway Park, to snatch up and redevelop the parking structure.
The garage has driven much of what Rosenthal has done over the past 20 years. Its Turnpike frontage spurred the creation of Stop Handgun Violence, and turned Rosenthal into a national voice on gun control. Its location turned him into an urban developer on the biggest scale. Now, the ambitious urban development is spelling the end of the garage, and the billboard, that started it all. Rosenthal is looking for a spot on Fenway Center to place a new Stop Handgun Violence billboard. It might go on the side of the complex’s parking garage, underneath Rosenthal’s solar panels. It could go on the end of the garage, facing inbound drivers. It will definitely not be as big or as visible as the current one.
“President Clinton used to tell me he’d change his entourage route into Boston to see the sign,” Rosenthal says. “It helped change the debate in Massachusetts. We helped change the debate nationally. It’s like a family member. It really is. I don’t have kids. But we made that happen. It became a national icon.” Nothing would be more satisfying to Rosenthal than to see his iconic billboard come down, while being able to say its message was finally received.
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.