What to know about the big South Station tower project — and how it will affect your commute

It's finally happening.

BOSTON, MA - 01/19/2020 South Station is quiet in the late morning on Sunday. The tens of thousands of commuter rail and bus riders who pour through South Station every day will soon have a more complicated course through the terminal. The enormous project is one of the most ambitious in Boston in decades: a skyscraper on top of Boston’s busiest rail hub, along with the expansion of the bus terminal and a new parking garage — all without disrupting operations. Erin Clark / Globe Staff
South Station is quiet on a recent Sunday morning. –Erin Clark / The Boston Globe

In the next few days, South Station commuters may notice a few changes.

In the next few years, they’ll notice a lot more.

After literally decades of planning, crews are laying the groundwork this week for the construction of a towering skyscraper above South Station. The project includes a 51-story, mixed-use tower and will expand the existing bus terminal by more 50 percent. It has a construction timeline of four-and-a-half years.

And while the work won’t immediately affect the commutes of those who travel through South Station, navigating the historic transit hub will change later this year.

Here’s what you need to know:

What exactly does the project include?

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The “South Station Air Rights” project has been planned — and delayed — for years.

Rendering of the planned South Station tower. —Hines

When the City of Boston sold South Station to the MBTA in 1977, officials retained ownership of the air space above for potential development. And when the 120-year-old station was last renovated in the 1980s, foundation beams were built between the outdoor tracks to support such future construction.

In the 1990s, the Houston-based development giant Hines was selected to lead the construction, along with the Tufts University Development Corporation. Construction had been scheduled to begin in 2008 but was delayed in the midst of the recession.

The project was revived in 2016 after Hines agreed to a financing deal with the Chinese developer Gemdale Properties. And the construction deal was finalized this past Christmas Eve.

The 678-foot glass tower will be built above the platform between the historic South Station head house and the Amtrak and commuter rail lines. It will consist of mostly office space (659,000 square feet of it, out of the tower’s total square footage of 876,000) and 166 condos, as well as some retail space at its base.

Future development phases could include two more buildings out above the tracks, including a hotel and nearly 1 million additional square feet of office space. However, those plans have yet to be finalized and won’t begin until after the first phase is finished.

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In the meantime, as part of the project, Hines is paying to expand the South Station bus terminal — which currently sits somewhat inconveniently above the far end of the track platforms — to connect it with the head house and completely cover the outdoor concourse. The project will also increase the size of the concourse by 67 percent and — with new escalators, stairs, and elevators — make it easier for bus riders to get to the expanded terminal, which is set to open in the summer of 2022.

Diagram of the expanded bus terminal. —Hines

For cyclists, the project also includes replacing the existing Atlantic Avenue bike racks with a protected bike storage room between the current bus terminal entrance and the South Station head house.

How will all this work affect your commute?

According to Hines and the MBTA, riders on the Red and Silver lines shouldn’t be affected, as all the work will occur above ground. However, officials say commuter rail and Amtrak passengers should plan to add around five to 10 additional minutes to their commutes this summer to get used to navigating around the construction zones.

The impacts this week will be relatively minor. Suffolk Construction, the project contractor, will be setting up a staging area for work on Atlantic Avenue, which will result in lane closures from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and temporarily eliminate some cab parking. Crews will also begin to gradually shorten the 13 rail tracks to create more standing space at the near-end of the concourse.

Commuters will see the real impacts beginning in July. That’s when a construction zone will be established inside the station that will block most of the doors leading from the South Station lobby to the platforms, rerouting passengers through a half-dozen doorways near Atlantic Avenue. Crews will also relocate food and retail kiosks for the sake of traffic flow. And the current sliding doors will be replaced with opened, hinged doors to ease any potential bottlenecks.

The planned construction zones inside South Station. —Hines
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While the entrance from Atlantic Avenue will remain open, the Summer Street entrance will be blocked off and replaced by a ramp leading to the indoor concourse. Crews are also planning to build a new walkway to the platforms from Dorchester Avenue.

According to the MBTA, individual trains may arrive and depart on different tracks than usual, but schedules will not be impacted. Lisa Battiston, a MBTA spokeswoman, also notes that “changes to paths of travel will be communicated to South Station customers well in advance.”

Rendering of the final expanded outdoor concourse area. —Hines

How bad will it be?

Hines and MBTA officials say the construction plans were designed to minimize disruption. Commuters at the already busy station aren’t so sure. As The Boston Globe recently reported, some are beginning to fret about what will happen when trains are delayed and the number of commuters inside the station builds up.

“We do have concerns,” Mike Muller, the MBTA’s assistant manager, told the Globe. “It’s a marquee station in Boston and we want to make sure this doesn’t significantly, negatively impact our customers and our service. Even if everything moves smoothly, there’s going to be an adjustment period where people are going to have to grow accustomed to a different configuration.”

The changes will also coincide with the installation of commuter rail fare gates at South Station, as well as at North Station and Back Bay Station. Keolis, which operates the commuter rail for the MBTA, plans to install the gates at the edge of the lobby at South Station around fall.

“The design, installation and operation of fare gates at South Station will complement the new platform configuration and reflect strong attention to the customer experience,” Keolis spokesman Justin Thompson said.

According to the Globe, the fare gates will likely be arranged diagonally across the outside concourse area, forcing commuters to pass through them before getting to the individual platforms, though the first platform nearest to Atlantic Avenue will remain un-gated so that bus riders can pass through to their terminal.

Hines officials say their construction plans were done so that they wouldn’t preclude the installation of the fare gates — or any other MBTA work. And according to Keolis, the fare gate plans are not yet finalized.

Still — fare gates or not — commuters may want to heed officials’ advice and prepare to leave themselves an extra five or 10 minutes.

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