Red Sox owner seeks to pepper Fenway area with high rises, take over public street

When John Henry bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002, as part of the three-way ownership deal that ended up with the Florida Marlins in the hands of Jeffrey Loria and the Montreal Expos eventually being moved to Washington, it was seen as a victory for opponents of tearing down historic ballparks and replacing them at public expense: The old ownership’s plan for a new, larger Fenway Park went out the window, and Henry instead set out to renovate the 1912 ballpark with mostly private money, though he did get $80 million in state and federal historic preservation credits.

Henry also set his sights on the Fenway neighborhood around the park, with an eye toward making money by expanding his team’s footprint outside the stadium proper. He bought several adjacent buildings, moving some ballpark operations into them, and struck a deal with the city to close down Yawkey Way (now Jersey Street because former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was a racist jerk who was the last owner in MLB to bring in a non-white player) on game days for a pittance so he could use it as an outdoor concessions mall. And now Henry is preparing his biggest move yet, seeking city approval to partner with two development firms to build 2.1 million square feet of office, residential, and retail towers on eight acres of land near Fenway:

“The Project’s guiding principle is to allow the city fabric to envelop and embrace the historic ballpark and create welcoming, people-first places and buildings that contribute to the quality and vitality of the public realm in the heart of the Fenway neighborhood year-round,” WS [Development] wrote in its letter to the [Boston Planning & Development Agency].

They also plan to shut down Jersey Street — which today is closed on Red Sox game days but otherwise open to traffic — to create a permanent pedestrian plaza alongside Fenway Park. That would happen only after the extension of Ross Way — which today connects Boylston and Van Ness Streets — all the way through to Brookline Avenue. A mix of storefronts and taller buildings would line Jersey Street, according to images filed with the letter.

The project also calls for buildings on a large surface parking lot across Brookline Avenue from Fenway Park, and on the site of a squat garage along Landsdowne Street behind the Green Monster. Longer term, the group is considering building a so-called “air rights” development over the Turnpike behind that garage — though those highly-complex projects typically take years of careful planning.

Here are some renderings, complete with skyways and clip-art people enjoying leisurely strolls (with their bicycles, for some reason) along public promenades:

Is this a land-development-rights stadium scam, like is becoming all the rage these days? Not precisely: Henry doesn’t appear to be asking for public money, and there’s no quid pro quo where he’s threatening to leave town if he doesn’t get what he wants or anything like that. It’s just Henry behaving like other local developers who have taken advantage of booming real estate values to erect a ton of high-rise buildings in the Fenway area. (If you haven’t been to a Red Sox game lately, check out what’s happened to Boylston Street.)

Still, developer scams are a thing too, and this has all the hallmarks of one: Henry would almost certainly need to demand a rezoning to allow for higher development than would otherwise be allowed on land that he or his partners bought for a price based on lower zoning limits. Plus, there’s that bit about shutting down Jersey Street permanently, which while maybe a good idea from a pedestrian traffic-flow point of view, still amounts to a land grab to make up for Fenway Park’s small footprint by annexing his own version of Baltimore’s Eutaw Street.

As with the original Fenway renovation deal, I don’t feel the need to call out the pitchforks and torches — this could be so, so much worse for both Boston taxpayers and Boston fans of historic stadiums and historic neighborhoods. Still, it’s decidedly an indication of how billionaires, whether they own sports teams or not (but it helps), can leverage their way into redesigning entire areas of cities. In American capitalism, we get not the cities that we deserve, but the cities that our 700-pound gorillas think will make them the most money.

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10 comments on “Red Sox owner seeks to pepper Fenway area with high rises, take over public street

  1. I’m all for sitting down Jersey Street. Too much city space is devoted to moving and storing cars. But i don’t want Jersey Street to turn into party of Fenway Park. If it’s going to be closed to cars it should remain a public space.

  2. Yeah this seems more like the typical rich guy getting a city to do what he wants so he can make more money than a sports team getting subsidy type story. That being said closing a street to cars for pedestrian-focused develop is a big trend in a lot of cities, so its not an awful thing especially if the development results in more tax revenue.

  3. I think there is a mistake in the letter. The guiding principle of this project seems more like “to make a shit load of money at least in part by usurping public assets without paying fair market value for them”.

    Also… in what way is the ‘city fabric’ not presently embracing the historic ballpark?

    If Henry owns the land and buildings he can do what he wants with them (subject to zoning and other regulations). If there’s one thing he doesn’t need, it’s public assets being gifted to him.

  4. Neil my man, you know not of what you speak as regards Boston zoning. To be fair, neither would most of the people who live in Boston. The letter of intent you posted was addressed to the Boston Planning and Development Authority, or the BPDA, a funky and all-powerful hybrid of a city and state governing body with a broad mandate to approve all large projects in the city according to some combination of its own rules and the mayor’s whim, and not the city zoning code. This is the same agency under a fresh coat of paint that gave the city decades of wanton urban renewal and a massive concrete box downtown for City Hall instead of they vibrant working-class neighborhood they bulldozed. Though they have been reformed somewhat through token gestures and political pressure, this same urban renewal power still lives in the BPDA, and the mayor’s ability to wield it and shape the city in his image is one reason why Boston’s mayors get so comfortable in that chair and why it’s so surprising that Marty Walsh is actually leaving town to join the Biden administration. There is indeed a zoning code but it is a decades-old musty relic that is overridden as a matter of course by the BPDA for all large projects in the City. This was the case for every single large building you noticed on the Boylston St. Street View and it will be the case for this entire project as well. One can build as of right in Boston but one hardly ever does. All of which is to say that the value of a prime developable lot in the city of Boston bears basically no relationship to the underlying zoning. Developers buy property on the basis of what they think they can get approved in the context of the BPDA, the resistance or lack thereof from neighborhood groups during the review process, and most critically, what the mayor thinks of them and therefore how smoothly things will go.

    As a Red Sox fan who just watched Mookie Betts win the 2020 World Series for the Dodgers, I’m all for denying the benefit of the doubt to John Henry and his ownership group. A lot of us think the FSG partnership has gotten bored with baseball and that making billions in the Boston development scene is their actual end game. And as a close follower of the Boston development scene, I think the city should be naturally suspicious of FSG, because the next logical step is just to get bored with Boston altogether and hopefully that doesn’t happen while there are holes in the ground. The city should be really careful to limit FSG and its development partners’ ability to exclude pedestrian traffic from Jersey Street at times other than those already bargained for in existing easement deals. But that will be negotiated in the course of large project review, which nobody in the city ever imagined would not occur. I just want to make sure that you don’t miss when you shoot at these guys.

    1. Ernie, my dude, I consulted a local Boston expert before writing this! Sorry if I conflated “BPDA overriding zoning” and “city council changing the zoning,” but either way it’s still a favor that the city would be doing for Henry and his developer partners, one that will enable them to turn more profits than they would without it.

      In any case, thanks for the clarification and explanation. And I think we’re in agreement on the bigger point, anyway, which is “cities do favors for developers all the time, this is just one example of that, and it’d be nice if Boston didn’t give away the store here.”

      1. Yeah and if I’m being honest, which I don’t want to because, again, Mookie Betts, Henry and Co. have arguably done more to “earn” a favorable review process then most other developers. FSG’s decision to keep Fenway Park and to invest in it is a major reason for the high value of the other parcels. The other property owners going in on this deal are members of the D’Angelo family, the owners of ’47 Brand and the team store across Jersey Street from the park, and which many would be surprised to learn has never been Sox owned or operated. That family held out for generations against an unknowable number of offers, and indeed against the existential threat of having their land taken from them for the failed-to-launch New Fenway Park proposed in the late 90s. Some in the development scene begrudge them for the overall crappiness of their holdings (most of the dingy centuey-old warehouses in the area are theirs), but a lot of us are happy to see it work out for them and to see them get paid on their terms. Be all of that as it may, the prevailing impression in the city is that FSG got sweetheart deals for its rights to close Jersey Street on game days and to permanently overhang the Monster Seats on Lansdowne. I want this all to go well but I also believe that public ways should be sacrosanct, so I really hope the city doesn’t give away the store in that specific respect. As for everything else, the neighborhood is infrastructurally primed for additional growth and the city desperately needs new housing construction, which hopefully this project maximizes.

        Thanks for the quick engagement. And speaking of old FSG money, I’m as always eagerly awaiting your next missive on Worcester. Preferably I’d like it to be a long form profile of all the key players, including a scene where Andrew Zimbalist is murmuring to himself in the mirror “I’ve got to sell this” like Ron Jaworski trying to hype up Tyler Palko.

        1. Ooh, Worcester would make a great movie script. You think any studios would option a bunch of blog posts?

          1. Federal historic preservation tax credits for billionaires = bad
            State film tax credits for the location shoots of Neil’s magnum opus = good

  5. I never realized David Samson is Jeffrey Loria’s stepson until reading the linked ownership transfer article.

    1. There are still a ton of articles that call him Loria’s “son-in-law,” which is, um, a different thing.

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