Monday, August 2, 2010

NEIGHBORHOODS: Green light for air base project

Redevelopment of closed Weymouth site to begin in fall

One of the state’s largest building projects will finally get underway at the shuttered South Weymouth Naval Air Station, providing an economic jolt to the region after a prolonged building slump that has devastated the construction sector.

Developers of the 1,500-acre redevelopment effort said yesterday they will start work this fall on about 500 housing units on the air base, with another 2,300 homes, 2 million square feet of stores, and offices, film studios, and a golf course to come later.

The air base was closed in 1997 and has since been renamed SouthField, which planners eventually envision as a $1.5 billion minicity on land that also borders parts of Rockland and Abington.

The scheduled start of work brought a large political delegation to the air base yesterday, as Governor Deval Patrick joined US Representative William Delahunt and US Senator John F. Kerry to trumpet the progress of the long-delayed project and the estimated 12,000 jobs it will bring.

“SouthField is real,’’ Patrick said as he stood in the middle of the vast concrete airfield. “We are creating the conditions for job growth and economic strength.’’

The project will be the first large-scale development to get un derway since the credit crisis and recession made it particularly difficult to undertake expensive building proposals. Even with the promise of government assistance, several other projects similar to SouthField have been unable to move forward, leaving thousands of construction workers jobless and stunting the state’s economic recovery.

SouthField owes its progress to the $45 million in state and federal aid the Patrick administration provided to build a 3.5-mile parkway across the property. Work on the road is expected to begin within weeks, clearing the way for the first housing units.

The air base’s master developer, LNR Property Corp., has signed deals with Whitman Homes and Interactive Building Group, two builders of single-family homes and town houses that are scheduled to start construction by October. Greenwich Investment Management is providing funding for the work.

LNR executives said they are also finalizing deals with an apartment developer and a builder of senior housing that also expect to begin work in the fall.

“We’re finally gaining the momentum and strength we’ve all been waiting for,’’ said Kevin Chase, a regional director for LNR. “By the first quarter of next year, people will be living at SouthField.’’

The SouthField project moved in fits and starts over the years, with LNR and the base’s public overseer, the South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., battling bureaucratic snags and then the collapse of the housing market and broader economy. The parties are still trying to finalize a deal with the Navy to buy about 830 acres of land where future building would occur, although significant progress has been made in recent weeks, according to Chase and political officials involved in the discussions.

Delahunt said yesterday he expects an agreement with the Navy will be finalized within the next two months.

“This particular redevelopment project, along with others, is going to bring us back to a vibrant and healthy economy,’’ he said. “We can see it now. It’s happening.’’

Kerry noted the capital markets and economy continue to struggle, but he said the air base project will provide a boost “like none other we’ve seen on the South Shore in recent years.’’

Developers said the first wave of housing units, to be called SouthField Highlands, will be marketed to a broad swath of people, from young families to single renters to senior citizens. The town houses and single-family homes will be priced between $300,000 and $400,000, executives with the building firms said.

But the broader build-out — of stores, restaurants, and offices — remains a challenge for SouthField, as few retailers are willing to open new stores and companies and office developers are leery of spending for new offices while the economy remains slow.

It’s unclear when that part of the market will rebound enough to finish construction at SouthField, or get some of the other larger development projects in Massachusetts underway.

The developer of Assembly on the Mystic, a massive mixed-use development in Somerville, is still working to get office and retail tenants. A planned IKEA furniture store there is not expected to proceed for at least another year.

The situation is similar at Westwood Station, another large development of stores, offices, and residences. The Patrick administration has offered more than $50 million in state assistance for that project, but its developers are still trying to find financing for construction.

“I think we’re going to start seeing more building activity, but it’s going to be in steady increments,’’ said Gregory Bialecki, Patrick’s secretary of housing and economic development. “In residential, we’re seeing increases in construction starts, but retail and office is slower and more opportunistic.’’

Casey Ross Boston Globe July 27, 2010

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