Boston: Back Bay
Community Profile
Boston's Back Bay setting the pace in high-end market

By Kathleen Howley, Globe Correspondent, 1/15/2000

Back Bay at a glance
Land filled: 1850s
Area: 1 square mile
Population: 14,343

Tax rate: $13.15 residential, $34.21 commercial
Form of government: Boston mayor, city council
Services: Boston Edison, Boston Gas, city water and sewer Public schools: Snowdon International High School
Private schools: Numerous
Public transportation: MBTA Green and Orange lines, Amtrak service from Back Bay Station
Cultural/recreational: Libraries, museums, gardens

The Back Bay is the highest-priced neighborhood in the booming Boston real estate market.

Deborah Taylor, president of LINK, a Boston listing service, said the average price per square foot in the Back Bay was $384 for all residential units - a figure that puts it only slightly higher than surrounding downtown areas. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

But, when comparing statistics for the high-end of the market - the fastest-growing Back Bay real estate segment, she said - the difference becomes dramatic.

"If you look at the luxury market, we've been seeing prices as high as $1,500 per square foot in the Back Bay. And, there is no shortage of buyers. In fact, there is not enough inventory to meet the demand of the high-end market," said Taylor.

Recently, a Back Bay single-family town house listed for $9.95 million, a new record, she said. "That is the highest listing price we have seen on a single-family, ever," she said.

Back Bay and Beacon Hill have, for generations, vied for the label of the most prestigious neighborhood in Boston. Based on selling prices, Back Bay is winning, she said.

The average sales price for Back Bay properties of more than 2,400 square feet was close to $1.8 million in the third quarter of last year, compared to just over $1.6 million on Beacon Hill, she said. That's an average of $621 per square foot for Back Bay property vs. $596 per square foot for Beacon Hill homes.

"If you are in the smaller-sized units, the prices between Back Bay and Beacon Hill are about the same. But once you move into the higher end, that's when Back Bay pulls ahead," she said.

Trinity Place, a luxury development under construction on a parcel that sits between the Boston Public Library and Copley Place, will be sold out by the time it is ready for occupancy in July, said Kevin J. Ahearn, president of Otis & Ahearn Real Estate.

Condominiums range from about $400,000 for one bedroom to more than $4 million for larger units, he said. Only 13 of 99 units remain on the market, said Ahearn.

The increasing demand for luxury properties is the result of the graying of the baby-boom generation, he said.

"It's demographics. There are a substantial number of people in the baby-boom generation, very successful in their careers, who are returning to the city. Their children are out of the house, and they want a change from the suburbs," Ahearn said.

Trinity Place is aiming to set a high-water mark in service, he said. Not only will the building offer 24-hour security, doormen and concierge service - de rigueur for buildings at the high end.

It also will have dog walking, maid service, delivery service, room service, valet parking, au pair suites, and a walk-in humidor to store owners' cigar supplies.

Mark Bensky, vice president of Coldwell Banker Hunneman in the Back Bay, said some buyers are opting for the simple life, in the under-$1-million-range.

One-bedroom units typically sell in the $300,000s, he said, and two-bedroom units usually sell for around $900,000.

For that, though, you have to hire your own dog-walker, he said.

"You might be able to find a one-bedroom unit in the $200,000s, but it's going to be very small and rear-facing. And, you can still find two-bedrooms for $600,000, but they are probably going to be on the small side, too," he said.

It's not the first time that Back Bay has set a standard for luxury living, said Edward W. Gordon, executive director of the Gibson House Museum on Beacon Street.

"By the 1880s and 1890s, it was the most desirable place to live in the city and was, in fact, eclipsing Beacon Hill. The houses were bigger and they had all the latest amenities - indoor plumbing and coal-burning furnaces - things that had to be retrofitted into Beacon Hill homes," he said.

He said the neighborhood has a name that confuses tourists and residents alike: Why is it called Back Bay when it is not under water and it doesn't front on a bay?

"Before the big fill began in the late 1850s, the Back Bay literally was a bay. It didn't exist as we know it today. It was an inlet of the Charles River Basin," said Gordon.

Unlike many other Boston neighborhoods, the streets were laid out in a grid pattern with parks and wide boulevards.

"Back Bay was created based on French urban planning. Beacon Hill, the older neighborhood, has more of a British feeling," Gordon said.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 1/15/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company
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