University Park at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge is a successful mixed-use development.

Traditionally, commercial real estate has been a singular business, with developers preferring to focus on a lone function for a given property. As the 21st century swings into full gear, however, alternative approaches are on the rise, with the notion of mixed-use construction increasingly gaining a foothold from various quarters.

?I think it is going to continue to grow in popularity,? acknowledged H. Lawrence Bluestone, founder of the Bluestone Planning Group in Cambridge. ?People are realizing that if you mix things together, [a property] becomes more lively for longer in the day,?

An architect and veteran urban planner, Bluestone said the advent of the mixed-use project has been especially pronounced over the past five years. Residents and public officials once satisfied with culling tax dollars from an office complex or hotel are now seeking additional benefits, clamoring for concepts that accentuate their environs well into the evening versus rolling up the lobbies at 5 p.m. Meanwhile, office parks are attempting to become more competitive by offering such amenities as retail, restaurants, health clubs and other services to attract tenants.

At the MetroNorth Corporate Center in Woburn, for example, a Superfund site today supports a range of uses, including a Target Department Store, hotel and office space. In Boston, the Abbey Group redeveloped the Sears warehouse into a blend of offices, restaurants, retail and a cinema complex. Across the river in Cambridge, Lyme Properties is pushing forward with its redevelopment of a former gas company site into a biotech and office mecca, one that will also have a hotel component and several other uses.

Certainly the idea of creating mixed-use complexes is not new, as witnessed by the extended life cycle of University Park at MIT in Cambridge, a 27-acre parcel which has been in the works since the early 1980s. But while planners have long been advocates of the multi-faceted property, Bluestone said developers have tended to resist such diversity in the past.

For one thing, he said, real estate tends to be more comfortable with specialization, with retail developers sticking to that sector while others focus on industrial, office or hospitality markets. ?They want to do what they do best,? Bluestone explained. Office or hotel construction projects have previously stood on their own because developers saw them as especially lucrative, but Bluestone said that outlook is evolving.

?Developers are seeing the profitability of doing several types of uses,? he said. ?Five years ago, they didn?t think that way, but it has changed.? Demand for multi-family housing has increased prices significantly, for example, so much so that most of the major mixed-use developments in Greater Boston now contain a residential component.

In some instances, the game plan depends on the owner. At 226 Causeway St. in Boston?s North Station, for example, the Intercontinental Cos. expanded what was to be straight residential into a blend of retail, office and apartments after buying the former bakery warehouse in June 2000 for $24 million. The latest version, which is now under construction, calls for retail on the ground floor, office space for the next five floors, and apartments that will be constructed on six new floors on top of the existing structure.

Architect James Alexander of Finegold Alexander + Associates of Boston said last week that there were a couple of reasons for taking the new approach. While the lower floors could have been designed as residential, the depth of the building would have required long, narrow units with window lines restricted to one end. Conversely, the layout worked well for office space, Alexander said, able to yield efficient 30,000 square foot floorplates.

?The physical dimensions were a challenge,? he said. ?But this way, we get the best of both worlds, with the housing on top and some great office floors below that … I think it?s a real plus.?

Opting to add a variety of functions did create some complexities, Alexander said, with separate entrances required for the office and residential components, as well as the need to create independent mechanical systems and shoehorn them into the layout. Access to below-grade parking will also require redundant entrances to the residential and office portions of the building.

Certainly among the greatest challenges in designing a multi-family development is in the details, and observers agree that the success – or lack of same – of a given project depends on how it is laid out. There are no cookie-cutter formulas on how a parcel should be annexed, with Bluestone stressing that, ?every site is different and the goals are always different.? Part of the job of the planners is to work with the community and developer to assess what each is looking to accomplish with the project and then determine the best way to meet those requirements.

?You need enough of a critical mass,? Bluestone said, noting that it would be difficult to create a neighborhood atmosphere by plunking 20 units of housing in the middle of an office complex. In the case of University Park, he said, developer Forest City Enterprises correctly determined that the residential piece would make more sense abutting an existing Central Square residential area.

Bluestone agreed that going from mixed-use concept to successful reality can be a long, arduous task, requiring extensive dialogue with all parties, from abutters to municipal officials and the development team itself. That can be a particular challenge when dealing with multiple constituencies and oversized parcels of land.

Among the most ambitious mixed-use proposals in Massachusetts right now can be found on the South Shore, where three communities are working with state officials and planning experts to redevelop the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station. Encompassing more than 1,400 acres, the shuttered base had been targeted last year for a combination mall and office park, but concerns over traffic created enough disconcert to quash the proposal.

Since that time, the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp. charged with repositioning the base has created a new vision. Unveiled last week, the $700 million proposal includes a plethora of uses, including 700 units of housing, a conference center, hotels, retail, office space and even an 18-hole golf course. Clustered designs would allow the agency to save more than 1,000 acres of woodland and waterways.

Tri-Town Executive Director Kenneth Goff said the latest concept has evolved over the past six months, ever since it became apparent that the Mills project was in trouble. But while maintaining that the initiative has made substantial progress in a short period of time, Goff also warned that much more needs to be done. Infrastructure and financing issues must be ironed out, he noted, while leadership of all three communities the base covers must also be willing to get on board the proposal. Patience is a definite mandatory in such ventures, Goff stressed.

?You don?t eat an elephant in one bite,? he said. ?It?s a long journey, but this is going to happen and in the end, and it?s going to be a well-thought-out, quality development that I think is going to benefit the area and the entire state.?

Another large-scale proposal on the horizon is the planned upgrade of a 26-acre parcel near the Mystic River in Somerville. Taurus Investments of New England has been working for the past four years to reposition the failed Assembly Square Mall, and has now broadened its sites to include an abutting nine-acre parcel known as Yard 21. If Taurus is designated developer of Yard 21 by the city of Somerville, it would pursue a $700 million plan for that would feature 850 units of housing, three million square feet of office and research space and a network of neighborhood retail and other uses, including a performance arts center. Taurus principal Peter Merrigan added that the company would contribute $2 million to spur a new transportation stop along the nearby Orange Line subway that runs into Boston.

?It?s a pretty unique opportunity to take an underutilized site like that and transform it into something that we think will be very special,? said Merrigan. The company has been working for months with the Somerville city administration and such groups as the Conservation Law Foundation to craft its plan, with a presentation now slated before the Somerville Redevelopment Authority next week.

All the Pieces of Mixed-Use Development Are Falling Into Place in Greater Boston

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 6 min