Why, After 30 Years, The Grand Dream That Is Boston’s Fan Pier Is Finally Taking Shape

By Scott Van Voorhis

Banker & Tradesman Columnist

Veteran waterfront developer Joe Fallon is pushing ahead with the first new luxury condo tower in Boston since the recession. And with it, after more than 30 years of fits and starts, the dream of a sparkling new neighborhood on Boston’s Fan Pier is finally starting to take shape.

I caught up with Fallon last week as he prepares to choose an architect for what will be the first residential tower at the multibillion-dollar Fan Pier project. Once he has the 15-story tower’s design in hand, Fallon said he plans to submit the proposal to City Hall for approval.

After a 12- to 16-month review, construction could start sometime in early or mid 2013 – a big step forward towards delivering on the promise of one of the top development sites on the East Coast.

The tower itself will go right on the harbor, with some of the best views around, he said.

“Every floor has dramatic views and every floor is a penthouse,” Fallon said.

Still, given all the troubles that have deluged the real estate market, one might ask why anyone would be building a new condo tower right now.

Apartments, sure, but condos?

 Holding His Own

But Fallon has done his homework. While the real estate market nationally is still foundering, the high-end Boston condo market has held strong, with prices falling just a couple percentage points over the past few years.

It’s a pretty remarkable showing, given how thousands of new downtown condo units hit the market during the bubble years and during the early part of the recession.

Sales did slow as buyers took their time, but prices held their own. Now, many of those fancy new towers are nearing the sold out mark. And with developers having run to the safety of the rental market, there are no new condo projects on the horizon to meet what Fallon said he sees as steadily building demand.

“The high-end condo and high-end residential market in the city is still doing very well,” Fallon said.

In fact, Fallon says he already has fielded dozens of inquiries about units in his new tower, and expects even more interest after fast growing biotech firm Vertex opens its new headquarters in a pair of Fan Pier towers next year.

After all, that’s another 1,500 or so potential customers.

While the design has yet to be sketched out, Fallon clearly has some ideas. The way Fan Pier juts into the sea gives it panoramic views of both the inner and outer harbor. Ranging in size from 1,500 to 2,200 square feet, the new condos will be designed to take full advantage of those views, with generous windows and balconies.

A model unit and sales office will take shape later this year at Fan Pier, giving potential buyers a sneak peak at what’s coming, Fallon said. Banners announcing the upcoming residential launch have already been hung around the Fan Pier development site.

Knowing The Ropes

A condo tower at Fan Pier will be a big step towards fulfilling the now three-decade-old vision of a new neighborhood along what was once a desolate stretch of windswept parking lots across Fort Point Channel from the Financial District.

“It is going to help further enliven this area,” noted Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association. “People who will be living in the condos will be supporting the restaurants and the retail.”

And Fallon – a quiet, no nonsense, get-things-done developer – deserves credit for taking a grand project everyone had pretty much given up on and bringing it back to life.

Chicago’s billionaire Pritzker family, owner of the Hyatt hotel empire, spent years floundering around in a morass of City Hall and South Boston politics. Unable to effectively advance their plans through the city and state bureaucracy, the Pritzkers put Fan Pier up for sale back in 2004, with Fallon eventually picking up the site.

Unlike the Pritzkers, Fallon knew the ropes in Boston, with a long history of getting things built, including an apartment high-rise around the corner and the headquarters hotel for the city’s sprawling new convention center.

Fallon went to work, landing a big law firm to anchor his One Marina Park Drive property – and then, last year, an even bigger catch in Vertex.

Now he’s doggedly pressing ahead with Fan Pier’s long-delayed residential plans.

Massachusetts has a well-earned reputation as a hotbed of NIMBYism. But Fallon’s admirable persistence with Fan Pier shows that big dreams and big projects are still possible to pull off, even here in the Bay State.

It just helps to know your way around – and to be ready to forge ahead when others are carping on the sidelines

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