A new Quincy
Building boom looks to move city beyond its past without leaving it behind
QUINCY MAYOR THOMAS KOCH calls the MBTA’s Red Line the “spine” of his aging city. With four stops in North Quincy, Wollaston, Quincy Center, and Quincy Adams, the T’s Red Line allows residents to move around the city and connect with Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville to the north.
These transit connections have long been the lifeblood of Quincy, but now they are starting to reshape the municipality as developers are waking up to the possibilities in the City of Presidents. Quincy is trying to transform itself from an old, industrial Gateway City into a residential and commercial haven for people and businesses that want proximity to Boston at a reasonable price.
Backed by public and private investment, Koch is pushing a $1 billion redevelopment plan that dramatically remakes the municipality’s downtown by knocking down the old and bringing in the new, while trying to retain ties to the city’s historic past. Most of the focus is on new residential and commercial buildings going up in the downtown area, but the city has also tried to spark some buzz by tearing up a portion of
Hancock Street, the main thoroughfare that ran past City Hall, and replacing it with a tree-lined park. The hope is that the remade downtown will attract restaurants, new stores, and other amenities that will in turn attract new residents and businesses.
The redevelopment has been a long time coming. Initially, the city worked with a New York-based developer called Street-Works, which is currently engaged in redeveloping parts of downtown Detroit and has undertaken large-scale projects in Bethesda, Maryland; Washington, DC; and West Hartford, Connecticut. The company bought the iconic Granite Trust building downtown in 2005 and four years later announced a public-private partnership with the city for a $1.6 billion redevelopment of downtown Quincy.
But after four years of inertia, Koch had had enough and “fired” Street-Works. There was no clear Plan B, but local companies such as Quincy Mutual, which had been an investor in Street-Works, worked with city officials to restart the redevelopment process. Slowly, private money began to flow in from other investors. So far, between public and private funds, about $370 million has been spent or committed to the downtown; Koch believes the total investment will exceed $1 billion when all is said and done.
The city’s biggest contribution so far has been infrastructure, building the Walter Hannon Parkway that allows drivers to travel from the Braintree-Quincy split on I-93 to other areas of the city, including the shore and Route 3A without going through and adding congestion to downtown. The city has also committed to build a 720-space parking garage to replace the municipally owned Ross Garage, which was taken down to make way for a planned 1 million-square-foot biomed and commercial building.
The shiny bauble in the project is a new pedestrian mall running between City Hall and the United First Parish Church, where the bodies of two of the country’s early presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, are entombed in crypts. The mall features grass, trees, water fountains, and statues of John Hancock, a Quincy native, and John Adams. Koch says the Hancock Adams Common is central to the city’s makeover, providing a “front yard” for downtown residents, a place of respite for workers at area offices, and a postcard setting for tourists.
The 55-year-old Koch is a political insider who served as an aide to former Mayor James Sheets and parks department commissioner under both Sheets and his successor, William Phelan. He ran against Phelan for mayor in 2007 and won, with much of the focus in the hard-fought campaign on spiraling tax bills. Koch, the father of three and a lifelong son of the city who lives in North Quincy, promised to keep a lid on taxes and the budget.
But after nearly 12 years in office and another four-year term in sight, Koch admits to having a different view of the city’s needs and says Quincy needs to invest in itself. Still, he insists the downtown redevelopment “is not costing taxpayers a dime,” with all the funding coming from District Improvement Financing, which allows the city to borrow against future tax revenues from the new buildings.
Koch also points out that his administration is investing in other parts of the city, not just the downtown. Seawalls are being repaired. Parks are being improved. New neighborhood schools are being built. Overall, he says, Quincy is improving, but the biggest changes are occurring downtown and having a ripple effect across the city.
“My oldest son said to me, ‘Dad, I will never be able to buy a house here,’” says Koch, somewhat forlornly. “It’s getting crazy when you hear something like that. It is an eye-opener and it’s concerning, there’s no question about it. But Quincy is that hot right now, that’s what drives the market.”
I sat down with the mayor recently in his office at City Hall and also went with him on a tour of the new Hancock Adams Common. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: You came into office with a reputation as a fiscal conservative, wanting to cap the tax rate and rein in the budget. If that guy who ran for mayor back in 2007 saw this guy in 2018, what would he say to you?
THOMAS KOCH: I don’t believe in spending money for the sake of spending money. I think that we have to be careful and remember where the money comes from – and that’s the residents of the city. Having said that, coming in as a candidate and then taking the job and seeing the challenges and seeing the need certainly has an effect on your judgment and your vision and agenda going forward. We’ve come a long way in a decade.
CW: You’re trying to engineer a rebirth in Quincy. What do you see as the key to that?
KOCH: It’s location, location, location. I go to mayors’ meetings in different parts of the state, and I always feel better coming home. A lot of these old cities aren’t experiencing the resurgence that we are.
CW: So being close to and connected to Boston is the key?
KOCH: Yeah, what changed the city was the Red Line. In fact, I would suggest that the Red Line saved the city economically as industries were first moving to the south for cheap labor. Quincy made the great transition into financial services, insurance services, the more white-collar type work. And that’s OK. The market doesn’t support that old industry anymore. It’s not there.
CW: Right now the Red Line is going through a lot of changes itself. The Quincy Center T garage is being demolished and new development is going in over the station. There’s new development at North Quincy and the ongoing renovation of Wollaston and its parking facility, as well as parking garage repairs at Quincy Adams. Is any of that impeding what you’re trying to do here?
KOCH: No, actually it’s encouraging investment because the investors and developers know in two or three years it’s going to be a brand new Red Line. We’re going to have all new Red Line cars starting in 2020. So those folks that are now waiting in North Quincy to get on a train and can’t get on a train, that’s going to be resolved by the investment that’s made in the system. The developers are always two steps ahead of us.
CW: Who are you trying to attract to Quincy?
KOCH: I think it’s a combination. There’s younger professionals looking for activity, which is coming. You’re going to see more entertainment stuff happening along Hancock [Street]. I don’t want to see pole dancing but maybe a bowling alley or more music venues. I’d love to get a cultural centerpiece combination, maybe some movie and some live shows.
CW: Who else are you trying to attract?
KOCH: The city is kind of a draw with the empty-nesters, those folks that may be a little older than me, maybe my older brothers’ and sisters’ ages who bought a big home down in Kingston or Pembroke or Hanover. We’re seeing that group coming back to Quincy because they love the action, the activity. They could get an apartment or condo downtown and go out to dinner three or four nights a week. They can jump on the T and get in town.
CW: What’s the park got to do with the downtown development?
KOCH: It has a lot to do with it, actually. Our investors had two main areas of focus over the years. One is they weren’t going to invest until a roadway was built [to ease congestion downtown]. Number two is they wanted to see a public space. So as we’re going with a more residential mix in the downtown, this is like an outdoor living space for the new residents. It’s something that would also be attractive to tourists. And long-term residents will appreciate it and view it as speaking to our history.
CW: Mayor Walter Hannon back in the ‘70s used to talk about a pedestrian mall and I remember former mayor Jim Sheets talked it up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Why, if there was so much talk about doing this kind of green space, is it just getting done now almost 50 years later?
KOCH: That’s a loaded question. I ran Jim Sheets’s campaign for mayor in ‘89 and [candidate and developer] Peter O’Connell resurrected the idea of the park in his campaign platform in ’89, based on some of the concepts that Walter [Hannon] had. During his terms, Jim Sheets did some major improvements in the downtown area of the streetlights and some of the landscape stuff but never got to this piece. And then [former mayor] Bill Phelan did the public charrettes [an urban design process involving all stakeholders] and that was a call for more public space and more green in the downtown, and he certainly was talking about it as part of the future downtown. So the stars were aligned if you will. Ted Kennedy provided the earmark for the Hannon Parkway way back when because we were shovel ready.
CW: Where was the money coming from?
KOCH: It was ARRA [the 2009 stimulus bill known as American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] money. So the feds obviously were very helpful. And then out of the box, Gov. Baker gave it a million-dollar Gateway grant and then a $4.2 million Gateway grant that was all used for design, that was used for a lot of the underground stuff that was on Hancock Street. That then set the stage for the final plan.
CW: I know how far back talk of a pedestrian mall goes, but why has it taken this long to get going with the actual downtown redevelopment?
KOCH: I don’t know that it’s taken this long so much as it is the project was so complicated. You’re moving a four-lane roadway. You had to deal with all the utilities around that to go with it and then, of course, as we built out and changed the roadway we began the process of the new sidewalks, the cafe seating, the beautiful landscape, the new tree planting. We included in that portion of the renovation, actually, the underground chamber [holding the presidential crypts] and tanks for the water [fountain] elements that are out there so we weren’t digging that site up three times. There was a real serious effort in planning on the sequencing of this whole thing.
CW: From the Granite Trust building south, going down to Revere Road and along Chestnut Street, what’s the vision? What is it that you’re trying to remake the downtown into?
KOCH: Well, first of all, we had a few good businesses down there. But the reality is from Granite Street south, the downtown was in complete decline for decades. Every year it seemed to get a little bit worse. There are exceptions. Alba came in very early on, a beautiful restaurant that was going against the trend at the time. You had the Fat Cat coming in and a few others. But the reality was the condition of the buildings was in decline. There really was no investment by any of the owners down there at all. So when I first was running, and when I got elected, people said what are you going to do about the downtown? They said the downtown is a dump. It needs attention.
CW: You’re a lifelong Quincy guy. Did you think it was a dump?
KOCH: It was in decline, serious decline. As a kid, I remember the whole heyday of the downtown. We’re never going to have that back. Some people thought we would be a major retail district again, but that was never part of our plan and I don’t think it was part of Phelan’s plan. The reality was, and it continues to be, we have tremendous opportunity here for mixed use.
CW: What were some of the obstacles you were facing?
KOCH: Parking needed to be addressed. The beauty is we owned two major packing surface lots that we sold. In addition to the infrastructure, we’re also bringing something to the table in development. We’re now in construction of the 720-parking space garage on the Hancock lot, which is going to be huge for that portion of Hancock Street. The old lot held 430. So this will accommodate some of the new developments across from the courthouse.
CW: You’ve got some new buildings on the left side going down Hancock but down on the right side and further down you’ve still got the old storefronts there, a lot of pizza, sub, and donut shops, vacant storefronts and other flagging retail. Are you having trouble getting these people on board with the redevelopment plans?
KOCH: When we redid the zoning, we created the urban redevelopment district that gives us tools to use, including eminent domain. We’ve used that on Cottage Avenue [side street off Hancock] to take a block. It was an old, tired building. The businesses were relocated and we assisted them with that. So that was one piece. The other side is, I know that we’ve got developers and investors trying to purchase some of this old, tired property and part of that challenge, in this marketplace, is when one thinks their properties are worth a billion dollars. The building’s been in the family for a long time, the owners live perhaps in a more affluent community. It’s probably their father had it and somebody manages it, sends the checks to the house, and they haven’t done a whole lot of investment. They’re going to be forced to do some of these things and we’ll continue to use the threat of eminent domain when needed because what I don’t want to see happen five years from now is, with all this public and private investment, we drive by there and there’s this little one-story corner building that just didn’t want to sell and now looks like hell and is not maximizing the value in the downtown. We’ve got to look at that very carefully as we continue to build out Hancock Street. So it’s happening, it’s slowly happening, but it’s happening. You’ll see more transactions.
CW: You had entered into an agreement with Street-Works and my understanding was they were going to foot the bill for everything. They were going to purchase the buildings. They were going to do the development – for a total of something like $1.6 billion.
KOCH: First of all, they helped us achieve our vision. And by having them as a partner as the major developer, we could go with a straight face to our federal and state partners and receive funding. So we got some early funding for the roadway. Had we not had a developer at the table, I’m not so sure we would have gotten those infrastructure pieces done.
CW: What is it that Street-Works was going to do?
KOCH: They helped us with a vision. They also were going to be the developer. So what you say is true. They were going to build out, at their cost, all these private buildings. They were also going to do the public infrastructure, the garages that we were going to buy back. And the argument there was it’s just easier to build it while you build the other buildings. We’re doing actually the same thing. [Contractor] Lee Kennedy, who’s building the 15-story building for Peter O’Connell, is building the garage because they’re literally up against each other and it just makes perfect sense for one contractor to be dealing with that.
CW: So what happened with Street-Works?
KOCH: Street-Works couldn’t execute. We had benchmarks they had to meet. And let me make a very important point. Street-Works spent millions, and I’m sure some of that was investors’ money, including Quincy Mutual, on all of the soft costs – the planning, the design work. The city of Quincy didn’t spend a dime. The city was well protected. So when the time came, I had to fire Street-Works, which was one of the hardest decisions I made sitting here because you develop a relationship with these people and they were in it up to their eyes. But they just couldn’t execute. They were big dreamers, big planners. At that time, the economy was on the skids. So the timing was poor for them as well.
CW: So when you fired them…
KOCH: I think it was ‘14. Everybody wrote us off at that point…
CW: That was my next question. Was there any fear that the downtown redevelopment wasn’t going to get done?
KOCH: I never doubted we could get things moving because, as we’ve seen, the cost of land continues to go up dramatically. The downtown was way undervalued. We have all kinds of investment going on along the Red Line at the same time and the roadway made a huge difference.CW: What turned things around?