As rising apartment rents have driven many millennials from their desired locations near the center of America’s largest cities, developers have sought to improve underdeveloped properties in bypassed, more suburban locations to provide different forms of walkable urbanity.
Hines, a Houston-based global real estate investment firm, is known best for high-profile office and mixed-use projects developed from its offices in global gateway cities such as Beijing, Berlin, London, Madrid, Milan, Moscow, New Delhi, Paris, and Warsaw. But Hines also develops lower-rise apartment projects from its offices in Boston, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. When the Boston office of Hines decided in 2012 to pay $19 million for a brownfield site in a transforming industrial area on the outer edge of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop a wood-framed residential complex, other developers marveled that the firm would pay a land price of $78,000 per unit.
For 20 years the site had been a railyard for the Boston & Maine Railroad, for 30 years a steel manufacturing plant, and for over 40 years a chemical plant making embalming fluids and other materials—all activities that had contaminated the site. David Perry, senior managing director of Hines in Boston, says that though costs to remediate the contaminated soil were significant, the total development cost of about $350,000 per unit was still 30 percent less than the cost to develop communities of comparable quality in high-density urban locations just a few miles away in other parts of Cambridge and Boston.
Perry saw the potential of the derelict site. The 2.7-acre (1 ha) former chemical manufacturing site was part of a 200-acre (81 ha) industrial area that was made into a functional island by its location between Fresh Pond and a golf course to its south, and to its north the 120-acre (49 ha) Alewife Brook Reservation, managed as a nature preserve with walking and biking trails and considerable wildlife. When Perry toured the site in 2012, Cambridge was in the process of investing $25 million to upgrade the reservation to increase its stormwater carrying capacity and, in doing so, create a natural recreational asset laced with elevated scenic boardwalks and biking trails through wetlands.
The site had a scenic location overlooking the reservation. A five-minute walk to its east would bring residents to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA, or “the T”) Red Line Alewife Station, which is an eight-minute ride from Harvard Square and a 20-minute ride from downtown Boston.
Built in 1985, the Alewife Station has a multilevel parking structure that holds 2,733 cars, helping it serve as the transit hub of the northwest Boston area. The ten-mile (16 km) Minuteman Bikeway, converted from an abandoned Boston & Maine Railroad track through the reservation, was completed from Bedford south to the Alewife Station in 1998.
Perry realized that a lifestyle residential project in this location could fuse the more urban Cambridge life with the kind of natural recreational tranquility normally found only in more distant exurban areas. This fusing of urbanity with nature gave rise to the Hines project and its name, Fuse Cambridge.
Rehabilitation in Progress
The industrial area had already undergone considerable transformation. Six- and ten-story office buildings were built immediately east of the site in the 1980s. In addition, because city officials had recognized that proximity to the T station could make the area desirable for housing the young professionals needed to sustain high-tech and biotech employers in East Cambridge and along the Route 128 corridor, the city adopted more-favorable zoning for multifamily housing. Plus, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s grocery stores were only a mile (1.6 km) away, supporting residential development.
Also, directly to the south, the 398-unit Hanover Cambridge Park apartment complex—five wood-framed stories rising over a concrete podium, densely built around two internal courtyards—was in development. In the middle of 2016, that project sold for a reported $540,000 per unit, providing evidence later of the growing value of urban-edge residential apartments with urban accessibility. That figure puts the $369,000 per-unit cost of Fuse Cambridge into better development perspective.
The long southern side of the trapezoidal site extends 446 feet (136 m), exposing that length of the site to the sunny south; views to the north are of the Alewife Brook Reservation.
To maximize views, the architects—Ed Hodges, principal-in-charge, and Chris Vlachos, project architect for Boston-based DiMella Shaffer Architects—extended a slightly inflected, boomerang-shaped, 65-foot-wide (20 m) building east to west. It is six stories tall—five wood-framed stories over a steel podium.
Perpendicular to that building, architects extended three wings to the north. The longest, easternmost wing is also six stories tall and 175 feet (53 m) long; the other two wings are five stories tall and 120 and 100 feet (36 and 30 m) long. Bordering those three wings are two- and three-sided courtyards facing the reservation. The open E-shaped building enables more than two-thirds of the units to have views into the nature preserve.
Because it would have been too expensive to locate parking underground—and in order to preserve an at-grade view of the reservation through the center courtyard from the entry lobby—the architects placed at-grade parking areas under the two elevated courtyard decks and under the buildings, except where the lobby is located.
In order to comply with Cambridge’s requirement of one bike parking space per unit while preserving the outdoor courtyard connection from the lobby to the reservation, Hines obtained a variance to reduce the project’s car parking ratio below the one-space-per-unit zoning requirement—to 215 spaces for the 244 units, a 0.88 parking ratio. An aluminum storefront window system on the building’s street side shields views of both bike and automobile parking, Vlachos notes.
On the western elevated courtyard, architects designed a 50-by-18-foot (15 by 5.5 m) swimming pool overlooking the reservation and an elevated boardwalk bridge across the wetlands. On the 100-foot-wide (30 m) eastern elevated courtyard, two-foot-deep (0.6 m) planting beds accommodate shrubbery; dining tables sit under a trellis; and gas barbecue grills, a wet bar, decorative paving, garden walls, and furniture create additional outdoor living space.
Full-height glass walls along the north side on portions of the main building and west wing—which include a fitness center, a business center, and a club room with a catering kitchen and a lobby—extend the visual reach of the public spaces toward the nature preserve.
The entry lobby is two stories tall above a wooden floor with a full-height glass wall facing the reservation. The lobby was located at the inflection point of the boomerang-shaped building so that one could see two tall willow trees and the nature preserve beyond. A curving stairway through the double-height lobby leads to a mezzanine lobby on the second floor, which in turn leads past an interior living green wall to the fitness center, club room, and outdoor pool deck.
Almost two-thirds of the units are studio and one-bedroom units renting for $2,300 to $2,800 per month, one-third contain two bedrooms and rent for $3,000 to $3,800, and 4 percent are three-bedroom units renting for about $3,900 per month. That produces weighted average unit rents exceeding $3.50 per square foot ($38 per sq m). Studio units, with about 530 square feet (49 sq m) of space, have a sleeping area separated by a seven-foot-high (2 m) wall under nine-foot (2.7 m) ceilings. A floor-to-ceiling window wall in a portion of the living/dining/kitchen area and a linear storage, laundry, and kitchen wall stretch the length of the units, which makes them function efficiently and feel more open.
Some one-bedroom units are oblique-angle corner units with glass walls on two sides, which maximizes views into the nature preserve. One-bedroom units range from 608 to 848 square feet (57 to 79 sq m), and many are split lengthwise so that the full depth of the living/dining/kitchen area benefits from a 12-foot-wide (3.7 m), nine-foot-tall (2.7 m) window wall.
Two-bedroom, two-bathroom units range from 967 to 1,144 square feet (90 to 106 sq m); many are arranged as dual-master-bedroom units flanking a central living/dining/kitchen area.
Exterior wood framing for the building is composed of two-by-eight-inch (5 by 20 cm) studs. The heavier framing enabled wider spans of windows set deeper in the wall to increase shading, plus allowed increased insulation to be installed, which helped Hines gain a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver rating for the building.
The building complex uses a gas-fired Aquatherm heating system to heat domestic water, which is also used to heat apartment units through individual unit heat exchangers. Individual condensers on the roof supply coolant to the heat exchangers.
The exterior was sheathed in fire retardant–treated plywood to gain a two-hour fire rating. Thicker fiber-cement clapboards then were applied with mitered corners to eliminate corner sheathing and express the volume of the building. Fiber-cement panels between sets of windows increase the visual horizontality of the building and articulate its facades. Architects took advantage of the southern exposure to include many balconies, some of which are placed at corners overlooking the streetscape. Interspersed as accents are rich-toned wooden panels and entry soffits.
Kitchens contain white quartz countertops and white cabinets in order to lighten kitchen/dining/living rooms. Wooden floors provide warm tones within the units.
Holding Down Prices
Though it might seem unusual for a global firm noted for its downtown high-rise office and mixed-use buildings to develop low-rise, wood-framed structures, Perry notes, it is difficult to build rental units at a price affordable for the primary rental market, which he says is composed of younger singles and couples.
To keep prices down, developers employ wood-framed construction, decrease unit sizes, and reduce parking ratios, plus use market-stretching devices such as dual master bedrooms, which can attract roommates, empty nesters, and people with visiting parents or adult children.
Those techniques, coupled with this site’s unusual location, enabled Hines and the Bozzuto Group, the Greenbelt, Maryland–based management company hired by Hines, to lease an average of 27 units per month during initial lease-up in 2016 until it reached stabilized occupancy in nine months. As part of its management program, Hines partnered with New York City–based Delos Living to offer its wellness package to residents for an additional $125 to $225 per month. The package helps purify apartment air and water and control lighting.
Perry said an unnamed institutional investor provided the largest share of the equity for Fuse Cambridge. Providence, Rhode Island–based RBS Citizens Bank and TD Bank, the U.S. subsidiary of Toronto Dominion Bank, financed the construction loan.
Hines Boston has now proceeded with other similar projects. One, Currents on the Charles, overlooks the Charles River Greenway four miles (6 km) to the west of Fuse Cambridge in the suburban town of Waltham. The other, Meriel Marina Bay in Quincy, overlooks Dorchester Bay and the Boston Harbor Islands across from the John F. Kennedy Library in South Boston. That project, designed by Elkus/Manfredi Architects of Boston in collaboration with Lawrence, Massachusetts–based Cube 3 Studio, is four stories of wood-framed construction sheathed in fiber-cement panels above a steel podium that will house restaurants and shops along a boardwalk overlooking a marina and the bay.
Choosing sites well-served by public transit and adjacent to large open recreational spaces can be a very good development strategy, Perry notes, despite the challenges and added costs of remediating brownfields.
William P. Macht is a professor of urban planning and development at the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University in Oregon and a development consultant.