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Air base project nears takeoff

Parkway seen as catalyst for site’s redevelopment

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / July 10, 2010

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After years of delays, the $1.5 billion redevelopment of the shuttered South Weymouth Naval Air Station is taking its first major step forward, with state officials set to break ground on a parkway that will support construction of thousands of homes, offices, retail shops, a golf course, and film studios.

The final sign-off needed to start work on the 3.5-mile road across the base site is expected next week, and private developer LNR Property Corp. said it intends to strike deals this fall to build up to 900 homes in the first wave of development.

“This is a piece of property unlike any other in New England, and we’re finally seeing the investment from others to solidify that,’’ said Kevin Chase, a managing director for LNR.

The effort to redevelop the 1,500-acre air base — one of the largest building projects in Massachusetts — is being jump-started by $45 million in state and federal funding to build the parkway. The road’s construction is seen as a catalyst for the broader effort to reshape the property into a minicity called SouthField, which will include more than 2,850 homes, along with 2 million square feet of commercial space, public parks, and the golf course.

News of the parkway construction, which comes after years of financial problems and bureaucratic delays, is considered a reason for optimism after one of the most prolonged building slumps in recent history.

“To see a large project like this moving forward is a sign the Massachusetts economy is picking up,’’ said Gregory Bialecki, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development.

Bialecki said he has received assurances from multiple developers that they will begin building on the base once the parkway is underway. Initial work will connect Shea Drive in Weymouth to Reservoir Park Drive in Rockland. A second stage, for which funding is still being raised, will connect Route 18 in Weymouth to Route 228 in Rockland. As the start of the work approaches, developers are considering deals to buy land from LNR, the property’s master developer, and start construction in the fall on the base’s first housing complex, to be called SouthField Highlands. A press event to discuss details of the upcoming work is being planned for later this month.

Communities surrounding the base — Weymouth, Rockland, and Abington — have been waiting for work to commence since the Navy ceased operations there in 1997. “Finally, we have some good news to report,’’ said state Representative Ronald Mariano, a Democrat from Quincy who represents neighborhoods around the base. “What’s going to start happening out there is going to be pretty significant for the region.’’

The project still faces several hurdles. LNR and the government entity that oversees the base, South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., must close a deal with the Navy to buy much of the land where future building would occur. The entities still need to acquire about 830 acres they have targeted as sites to develop additional homes, offices, and part of the golf course.

Kevin Donovan, executive director of South Shore Tri-Town, said he and LNR executives met with Navy officials Thursday, and the talks appear to progressing.

The base’s redevelopment could also be slowed by the sluggish commercial real estate market. LNR does not have any legal commitments from companies that want to build stores and offices on the land.

Chase said the developers of a film studio want to begin construction by the end of the year, but there is little demand for development of office buildings, particularly when it is less expensive to buy an existing vacant building.

“The commercial markets in general are experiencing a very difficult time,’’ Chase said. “I don’t have a crystal ball on when we’re going to see a significant move forward on that front.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.