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Waterfront in bloom

Developers are set to begin construction on Pier 4, one of several projects gaining traction

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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After years of delay, the developer of Pier 4 in Boston’s Seaport District will build a $170 million apartment and retail tower, adding to a burst of development activity that is rapidly transforming the city’s waterfront.

Executives with property owner New England Development of Newton and its partner on the project, Hanover Co. of Houston, said they expect to begin construction next spring on a 21-story tower that would include 357 apartments, retail stores, and an underground parking garage next to the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The new building would not immediately result in the closure of the classic eatery Anthony’s Pier 4, which is to be replaced in later phases by a one-acre public park at the water’s edge. The restaurant may reopen in another location on the property, where New England Development is planning a second residential building, a hotel, and additional retail space.

“We’ve made a significant investment here and see it as a great place to live, work, and visit,’’ said Douglass Karp, the firm’s executive vice president. “This first building is going to be the gateway for the Pier 4 development.’’

The project, initially approved in 2005 and then slowed by the recession, adds to a flurry of building on the waterfront, which is finally beginning to attract new companies and retail stores after years of fits and starts. Streets that once felt desolate and industrial are now bustling with people seven days a week. New restaurants and bars have lines out their doors daily. Several other developers are pressing to begin construction.

“There’s a lot of excitement, and it’s really different from anything I’ve ever seen in my career,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has branded the area Boston’s “innovation district.’’

“Every day we get calls from businesses who want to move down there.’’

The question now facing the neighborhood is whether that momentum will again be sapped by the sputtering economy, the sudden decline of which could undermine demand for new stores, offices, and homes that have long been planned for the area.

Executives with Hanover and New England Development said they remain committed to moving forward.

David Hall, a development partner with Hanover, a national apartment builder, said the turmoil might even help improve the already strong market for rental units in the city. “The propensity for people to rent instead of own is shifting,’’ he said. “The economics support this deal.’’

Several developers in the neighborhood have either just begun construction or are seeking to get underway. The biggest breakthrough is at neighboring Fan Pier, where developer Joseph F. Fallon recently started construction on a pair of $800 million towers for Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.

In addition, a partnership of Morgan Stanley and developer John B. Hynes III is looking to start on two 20-story buildings that would contain apartments and a hotel above a four-story retail base featuring a cinema, restaurants, and stores. And developer John Drew is trying to proceed with a planned complex of apartments and retail space near the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Many of those projects were planned and approved years ago but have changed with economic cycles and new ownership.

New England Development and its chief executive, Stephen R. Karp, bought Pier 4 in 1998 after a prior effort ended in a legal feud between the late Anthony Athanas, the original owner of Anthony’s Pier 4, and the Pritzker family of Chicago. The Pritzkers gained ownership of the adjacent Fan Pier in the fight but failed to develop it.

Meanwhile, Karp spent several years devising plans for a massive commercial development on Pier 4 that won approval in 2005.

His firm waited to proceed through the recession and just recently began meeting with city officials about moving forward.

Before construction can proceed, the Boston Redevelopment Authority must sign off on changes to the development plan. The building New England Development now wants to contain apartments had been previously slated for offices.

BRA officials have thus far offered supportive comments for the project, which they see as crucial to continuing momentum on the waterfront at a time when it seems poised for rapid redevelopment.

“What’s different now is that the innovation district is a growing place,’’ BRA director Peter Meade said.

“People are no longer asking, ‘Is this going to work? Is this a place where I can make money?’ Those questions are over,’’ Meade said. “The question we’re hearing now is, ‘How can I get a piece of this?’ ’’

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


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