Sudbury Power Line Fight Could Affect Development Deals Statewide

The following article, written by Jon Chesto, was first published in the October 2 online edition of The Boston Globe

At first glance, it might seem like a simple courtroom showdown between the MBTA and the Town of Sudbury over an underground power line.

But to the state’s major commercial real estate trade group, the fight that played out at the Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday is about much more.

NAIOP Massachusetts isn’t a party to the case. But it did weigh in — on the side of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and utility company Eversource — through a friend-of-the-court brief.

The reason? Should the state’s highest court side with the town, NAOIP worries that transfers of publicly owned properties across the state could grind to a halt.

To get this far in its appeal, the town homed in on the state’s “prior public use doctrine” — a common-law understanding that land already devoted to one public use can’t be changed to a different one without state legislation. A Land Court judge ruled in 2018 that the doctrine didn’t apply in the Sudbury case, because the land would be leased for a private use. The town appealed, and the SJC decided to take up the issue.

George Pucci, a lawyer for Sudbury, argued Tuesday that this is an unusual case, one that would not open the floodgates. He noted that much of the right-of-way had once been acquired by eminent domain for transportation purposes.

But the potential broader impact was on the minds of the justices, as their line of questioning made evident.

NAIOP got involved after the SJC put out a call for input in May. Of particular concern to the trade group: The judges said they wanted to review whether the public-use doctrine should be in effect for transfers of property that would lead to private uses.

That request  didn’t come out of left field. Pucci, in his initial appeals brief, argued it wouldn’t make sense to prohibit the transfer to an inconsistent public use while allowing the sale for an inconsistent private use. This, he wrote, would defeat the purpose of the doctrine: to protect public land from being converted to a different use without legislative approval.

Words like those can strike fear in the heart of any developer. Tamara Small, NAIOP’s chief executive, says a mandatory trip to the Legislature would open up a whole new layer of uncertainty and expense for public-private partnerships. Begging on Beacon Hill would bog down the development process, the mere prospect preventing many deals from happening in the first place.

In its brief, NAIOP offered a smattering of examples to emphasize some of these partnerships’ public benefits: an apartment complex in Chinatown with more than two dozen affordable units, clean energy from solar panels that dot state land along the Massachusetts Turnpike and other highways, the pending Polar Park stadium that will be built on city-owned property for the soon-to-be Worcester Red Sox.

What about Eversource? What public benefits would the electric utility offer with its deal? The company says its 9-mile Sudbury-to-Hudson line, mostly in a rail corridor, would bring nearly $9.4 million in lease payments to the T over 20 years. The line would help improve grid reliability in Greater Boston, with a side benefit of allowing a rail trail to be built along the stretch.

To the Sudbury town officials who authorized the litigation, these benefits don’t seem worth the adverse environmental impacts, such as damage to wetlands and wildlife habitats along the corridor.

Jessica Gray Kelly, NAIOP’s lawyer, says her client is agnostic on the fate of that project. But the association’s members do worry that the effects could ripple far and wide if the court decides legislative approval is needed for any change of use in a public property deal, not just for those in which control would be transferred to another public agency.

It would be a new world for real estate development in the state. Kelly demurs when asked how she thinks the court will react. But NAIOP’s insertion into this seemingly local fight shows the trade group is not taking any chances.

You can find NAIOP’s Amicus Brief and more information about the case by clicking here.

The Legislature Is Hitting the Halfway Point: What Does That Mean for Commercial Real Estate? From Housing to Climate Change, Key Issues Are on the Table

The following column was published in the September 15 edition of Banker & Tradesman.

With the 2019–2020 Massachusetts legislative session approaching the halfway point, it is a good time to take stock of where things stand and what legislative proposals could affect the commercial real estate industry.  

The current legislative session began in January 2019 and will conclude on July 31, 2020. With more than 7,000 bills filed to date – and more expected – Massachusetts legislators have the ability to make dramatic changes affecting every aspect of society.  

As legislators consider proposals affecting commercial real estate and economic development, in general, they must also consider the economy for the year ahead. The Greater Boston market is currently viewed as a stable market for investment; and while vacancy and unemployment rates remain low, warning signs of a coming economic downturn are on the horizon.  

The pace of economic growth in Massachusetts has not kept pace with that of the nation over the past year. In the second quarter of 2019, Massachusetts GDP grew at a 1.4 percent annualized rate, while U.S. GDP grew at a 2.1 percent rate. In addition, in August, the 10-year Treasury yields fell below the rate on 2-year notes for the first time since 2007. This inverted yield curve has been an indicator of coming recessions for the past 50 years.  

This, combined with escalating trade wars and geopolitical uncertainty, highlight the need for careful consideration of the potential statewide impact of legislative proposals.  

While it is nearly impossible to predict how the session will end, legislative leaders have expressed an interest in tackling some significant policy issues including tax revenue, housing and climate change. Given the impact these issues will have on commercial real estate, the details matter. 

Transfer Taxes  
Revenue has been a popular word on Beacon Hill in recent months, with numerous transfer tax proposals filed. The bills all seek to create revenue for a variety of funding priorities, including affordable housing, climate change, education and transportation.  

However, the transfer tax is not the best approach to adequately address these issues, particularly since the revenue will be pegged to the real estate market. 

With anticipated market instability, these taxes many not serve as a stable funding source. If passed, they will increase the cost of housing and commercial development, which has the potential for negative ripple effects throughout the economy. 

Climate Change  
Given the environmental, public health, safety and economic development threat posed by climate change, legislation on this issue is expected this session.  

The House passed H. 3846, An Act Relative to GreenWorks, in July. It is a $1.3 billion energy and resiliency bill designed to offset climate change, creating a new grant program for cities and towns throughout Massachusetts to fund projects focused on climate resiliency. It is modeled after the successful MassWorks infrastructure program and builds on the Environmental Bond Bill passed in 2018.  

Climate change affects all residents of the commonwealth. Therefore, the burden for addressing this issue should be shared.  

Unlike transfer tax proposals, which only target a subset of the population and may drive up the cost of housing, GreenWorks is a far more equitable approach and should be a top priority for the legislature.  

Housing  
Finally, one of the most significant economic issues in need of legislative action is the current housing crisis.  

The supply of housing is not keeping up with demand, which in turn is driving up rents and home sale prices. An Act to Promote Housing Choices (H.3507) provides a clear framework for cities and town to encourage new housing production.  

The bill, which has the support of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the real estate industry, affordable housing groups like CHAPA and business leaders, allows cities and towns to adopt zoning best practices by a simple majority vote, rather than the current two-thirds supermajority.  

Whether it’s senior housing or multifamily housing, countless units are never built because of the need for a supermajority vote. Given the broad support for this bill, the legislature needs to act on this legislation in advance of spring town meetings, where countless projects will be up for review at the local level.   

While these are only a few of the issues expected to move this session, it’s clear that decisions made at the State House over the next 10 months will have a significant impact on the real estate industry for years to come. NAIOP will continue to work with legislators to ensure that the economic impacts of legislation are considered and that Massachusetts remains a great place to live and work.  

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirms decision in favor of BPDA

Today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed the Superior Court’s decision in favor of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), formerly known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), in the case of Joseph P. Marchese vs. Boston Redevelopment Authority. The Court determined that the plaintiff did not have standing to challenge the BPDA’s actions in this case.

In April, NAIOP submitted an amicus brief in support of the BPDA, drafted by law firm WilmerHale. NAIOP chose to pursue this opportunity because the case addresses the “demonstrations clause” of the urban renewal statute, which is a critical economic development tool, often used for artistic, cultural and historical preservation in the City of Boston.

“We are pleased with today’s decision,” said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts. “This case was closely watched by the industry and the decision will allow the BPDA to continue to leverage important public-private partnerships to positively impact the City’s communities and public spaces.”

NAIOP files amicus briefs from time to time in cases that may have far reaching implications for real estate development in the Commonwealth.

Very special thanks to the team at WilmerHale including Michael Bongiorno, Julia Harvey, Arjun Jaikumar, Matthew Costello, and Keith Barnett. Additional thanks to the NAIOP Amicus Brief Advisory Committee  for their in-depth review and input on this issue.

Seaport by Foot: Walking Tour Recap

Every year, NAIOP takes its members on a walking tour that explores the latest real estate development projects in a specific neighborhood. This year, NAIOP members toured the Seaport, where they had the chance to see recently opened buildings and get an invaluable sneak peek of what’s to come. A still evolving neighborhood, the Seaport has seen incredible investment in everything from office and lab space, to residences along the water, and innovative retail. The district is 23-acres of mixed-use zoning, including 10 acres of open space, and has become a new hub of commerce, culture, and innovation in the City of Boston.

Icon Theater

The sold-out walking tour kicked off at the Icon Theater. The group got a lesson on the history of the neighborhood from David Martel of Newmark Knight Frank, and an important reminder that what is happening in the Seaport now is the result of over 30 years of work from visionaries, investors, and developers who came together to transform the Seaport into what it is today. Yanni Tsipis of WS Development discussed the billions of dollars of public investment, including the Harbor cleanup and Big Dig, that catalyzed the growth of the Seaport. He also discussed his firm’s massive, transformative development, Seaport Square, including the forthcoming 88 Seaport, a mixed-use retail and office project, and 111 Harbor Way, future home to Amazon.    

121 Seaport Boulevard

The group then headed to 121 Seaport, home to PTC’s global headquarters and Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Developed by Skanska, the project officially opened earlier this year. Carolyn Desmond of Skanska discussed the development of this 17-story, 450,000 square foot elliptical tower, which included the discovery of a long-buried ship during construction! Marc Margulies of MPA then covered the cutting-edge design of the PTC headquarters.  The building’s unique shape provided increased opportunities to build out a truly unique space for the offices, providing optimal light and functionality.  Attendees then toured the PTC office, including its incredible rooftop terrace.

Photo of 121 Seaport
Bruce T. Martin Photography 508-655-7557 btm@bruceTmartin.com 154 East Central St Natick MA 01760

Harbor Way

Outside of 121 Seaport, Martin Zogran from Sasaki discussed his firm’s work to create an expansive public realm program, which weaves together a unique fabric of residences, offices, shops, restaurants, civic uses, and hotels.The master plan is designed to encourage walkability and alternative mobility options with 39% of the total project area being exclusively devoted to pedestrian-only open space. As an example, a tree-lined pedestrian path, Harbor Way, punctuated by plazas and amenity spaces serves as the district’s cultural corridor and north-south connector between the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC). Their work will bring a diverse mix of uses, pedestrian-oriented public space, and greater coherence and connectivity to the Seaport.

Photo of Harbor Way

EchelonSeaport

A quick walk across the street brought attendees to EchelonSeaport. Developer Michael Schumacher of The Cottonwood Group and Phil Casey of CBT gave an overview of this 1.33 million square foot community, featuring two condominium towers and one multifamily tower with 60,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor residential amenity spaces. The design, focused on the intersection of art and commerce through the lens of luxury hospitality, will include significant public space and promises to be a striking addition to the Boston skyline. With amenities for both towers ranging from pools to private dining rooms, EchelonSeaport promises to provide residents with much more than just a place to live.

Rendering of EchelonSeaport

The St. Regis Residences, Boston

Attendees then went to the former Whiskey Priest location, which will soon be the St. Regis Residences, Boston. Sean O’Grady of Cronin Development and Rebecca Eriksen of Elkus Manfredi Architects discussed the project, which broke ground in Fall 2018. The project faced a unique caveat in initial design – the property borders the Harbor on two sides. Rising to the challenge, the latest residential waterfront development in the Seaport promises to evoke nautical themes in every aspect of its architecture and décor. Currently slated to open in early 2021, the 114 residences will provide a highly curated experience, featuring signature design, dramatic views, an 8,000+ square foot bistro with additional terrace space, on-site spa, and other luxury amenities.

Rendering of The St. Regis Residences, Boston

Thomson Place

From there attendees went to the Seaport’s Fort Point Channel, where Jamie Carlin and Paul Connolly of Crosspoint Associates discussed the future of Thomson Place – a renovation and reinvigoration of one of the area’s historic warehouses. Scheduled to open in Fall 2019, the project will include office, retail and mixed-use space. Currently home to Trillium Brewing, Bartaco, and a new public plaza, the project brings new energy to the neighborhood, while preserving its historic character.

Rendering of Thomson Place

Networking

The group wrapped up the day at The Grand for a networking cocktail hour sponsored by WS Development. Attendees had the opportunity to chat with brokers, project teams and each other to wrap up a successful tour with a well-deserved cocktail in hand. Plans are already underway for next year’s tour. We look forward to seeing you then!  

CEO TAMARA SMALL TESTIFIES IN SUPPORT OF NAIOP LEGISLATION REGARDING UTILITY ACCOUNTABILITY

On Tuesday, July 9 NAIOP CEO Tamara Small testified before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Cable in support of NAIOP bill H. 2861, An Act to Encourage Predictability in Utility Connections. Introduced by Representative Thomas Golden of Lowell, the legislation is targeted at addressing the frustrations the commercial real estate sector has expressed for years regarding the lack of transparency and predictability for utility connections at development projects. If passed, the bill will ensure that commercial customers, as well as new connections and relocations of existing connections, are included in the service quality standards.

NAIOP CEO Tamara Small testifying before the Joint Committee of Telecommunications, Utilities and Cable July 9,2019

Currently, when utilities request a rate increase, they are “graded” based on how they perform under the Department of Public Utilities’ Service Quality Standards.  Customer satisfaction, response times for service outages, and repairs and maintenance are some of the criteria considered under M.G.L. Chapter 164 §1E.  However, utilities are only judged based on their performance with residential customers, not commercial customers.  In addition, only existing connections, and not new connections, are included in the service quality standards.

“As we saw with the gas moratorium and lockout last fall, new utility connections are absolutely critical for economic growth,” testified Small. “Small business owners could not open their doors, companies could not relocate to new office space, and tenants who had signed leases for new apartments did not have a place to call home.”

NAIOP believes that by including commercial projects, the relocation of existing connections, and new connections in the review process, we will have greater transparency and accountability in the regulation of our utilities statewide. NAIOP will continue to advocate for the passage of this bill so that future real estate development projects could benefit from the proposed change.

Planning for a Changing Climate is a Shared Responsibility: Private, Public and Philanthropic Sectors Must Work Together

The following column was published in the July 7 edition of Banker & Tradesman.

NYC CLIMATE TRIP JUNE 2019In June, a group of business leaders, philanthropists and environmental advocates joined Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and his environmental team on a “City to City” trip to New York hosted by the Environmental League of Massachusetts and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. As the CEO of an organization that has made climate change resiliency one of its top policy priorities, I was honored to be part of this distinguished group.

The trip was designed to provide attendees with an inside look at how Lower Manhattan responded to Hurricane Sandy and how the public and private sectors are planning for the future. During the walking tour, it quickly became clear that building owners and developers were the “first responders” post-Sandy. Whether through the installation of flood protection measures, nature-based solutions, the elevation of mechanical systems or innovative design measures, the commercial real estate industry is spending millions of dollars on climate change resiliency.

While these types of investments are critical, having a “climate–proof” building in the middle of a neighborhood without power or transportation provides no real public or private benefit.

During Hurricane Sandy, a 9.5-foot storm surge flooded the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, which connects Brooklyn and Manhattan, with 60 million gallons of contaminated salt water, causing extensive damage. After the storm, the city installed 50,000-pound steel flood gates to protect against a 500-year flood event. Watertight flood walls were installed around the tunnel’s ventilation shafts. Hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA funds were spent on the project.

If that was the cost for just one project, then one thing is very clear – addressing climate change through mitigation and adaptation will require massive amounts of funding and collaboration between federal, state, local, private and philanthropic entities.

What Does This Mean Locally? 
Boston is taking this issue very seriously.

In October, Walsh released the Resilient Boston Harbor Plan, which is designed to protect the city against the impacts of rising sea level and climate change. The plan includes elevated landscapes, enhanced waterfront parks, flood–resilient buildings and increased access to the waterfront. The city of Boston also became one of the first cities to set a target of carbon neutrality by 2050. Flood overlay zones are being developed, which will affect new construction and existing buildings.

At the state level, aggressive goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been set, new energy efficiency codes have been adopted and comprehensive adaptation and mitigation plans are now being implemented. Nearly all of these policies and plans will affect the real estate industry.

For commercial real estate developers in the Boston area, climate change resiliency is a top priority. Extreme weather events, eroding shorelines and sea level rise have the potential to impact properties and tenants. As a result, new development projects are the most climate resilient. They are designed to take on the storms of the future and often include measures that will protect surrounding neighborhoods from the impacts of climate change.

Recognizing that while climate change cannot be ignored, economic realities still apply. If one sector of the market is overly burdened with new regulations and costs, resiliency measures will fail.

What’s the Solution? 
As the state and cities move forward with their climate resiliency efforts, flexibility is required so that the real estate industry can effectively address climate change without restricting future housing and economic development, which produce crucial property tax revenue. Regulations should provide owners and developers with the ability to make decisions based on the needs of the individual properties, tenancy and product type. Both costs and risks must be evaluated when considering climate change-related investments or regulatory changes.

Given the impact of climate change on all residents of the commonwealth, the burden for addressing this issue should be shared equitably. While an increase in the transfer tax has been proposed as a solution, it’s not the right approach. It only targets a subset of the population and may have the unintended consequence of driving up the cost of housing.

Lowell’s Rep. Thomas Golden, with the support of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, recently filed H3846, An Act Relative to GreenWorks. This proposal is a $1.3 billion energy and resiliency bill designed to offset climate change, creating a new grant program for cities and towns throughout Massachusetts to fund projects focused on climate resiliency. It is modeled after the successful MassWorks infrastructure program and builds on the Environmental Bond Bill passed in 2018.

Given the magnitude of this issue, no one piece of legislation can fully address climate change, but the GreenWorks legislation will set the commonwealth on a path towards improved resiliency. Its passage, combined with public-private partnerships and innovative solutions, will ensure continued economic growth and quality of life in Massachusetts as we tackle one of the greatest challenges threatening the future of the planet.

NAIOP Testifies in Support of Umbrella Liquor Licenses for Large Real Estate Development Projects

Earlier this month, NAIOP’s Government Affairs Associate, Anastasia Nicolaou, testified before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure in support of H. 208, An Act Relative to Large Project Based Licenses. If passed, the bill would allow owners of large real estate development projects to apply for an “umbrella liquor license” with the local licensing authority, overseen by the State Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. Under the “umbrella license” the local licensing authority would be able to issue restricted project-based liquor licenses for restaurants. These licenses would not be subject to the quota established in the Massachusetts General Laws. They would be tied to the property, not available for resale, and non-transferable.

Currently, liquor license quotas in a city or town in Massachusetts create a barrier for including restaurants in real estate development projects, weakening the project’s overall feasibility. In her testimony, Nicolaou underscored the importance of shop/work/live to the future of retail. Restaurants are critical components to the success of mixed use developments, which create jobs, tax revenue, and community centers for their residents and municipalities.

Nicolaou also focused on the important role of local government in the proposed process.

“This legislation allows the local government to participate in the decision-making process by requiring the adoption of a local ordinance or bylaw to allow this process within their jurisdiction,” said Nicolaou. “This encourages a partnership between the developers and local government as they work together for the future economic prosperity of the community.” NAIOP was pleased to testify in support of this legislation along with representatives from ICSC and will continue to advocate for passage of the bill so that future real estate development projects could benefit from the proposed change