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As NIMBYism Wanes, Cities Balance New Development With Community Needs

Last fall, the city agency that oversees planning and development in Boston made an atypical move. In a city known for being the thriving and undisputed center of the country’s biotech and life sciences sector, a plan to convert a former office building into lab space was shelved. The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) tabled the project after receiving a hefty amount of pushback from the residents in the Fort Point neighborhood where the conversion was set to take place. Among residents’ biggest concerns, aside from worries over potentially hazardous materials being handled in the area and the lab’s 24/7 nature, wasn’t what was happening inside the buildings but what was going on top of them. Lab buildings have very specific needs, including heavy-duty HVAC systems that are often installed on the roof and tend to be noisy and tall—sometimes rising more than 30 feet. 

Two months after pausing the project, the BPDA announced a forthcoming set of guidelines for life sciences lab development in the city. For developers, it represented more regulatory hurdles that could slow down the development process. For the city, it was an effort to build needed lab space that would help keep the city’s economy humming along while also meeting the needs of nearby residents concerned about potential impacts. With the Life Sciences Action Agenda, Boston officials hope to continue welcoming more development in the city in the least disruptive way possible. “Once these action items are complete, the future of life sciences development will be more predictable, contribute to Boston’s urban fabric, and advance the City’s goal,” the plan reads.


Community pushback to new development is nothing new. Coordinated efforts to halt projects have been around for decades, and in some cases, there’s a term for it: Not In My Backyard (NIMBY). But on the opposite end of the spectrum, another term has sprung up recently in response: Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY). It’s a movement that started a decade ago in San Francisco and has gained a lot of momentum since, even leading to annual gatherings like YIMBYtown. As the affordable housing crisis worsens, more research on why it’s happening and what can be done to mitigate it has resulted in an often non-partisan, growing consensus of professionals who see one simple reason and solution to the problem: build more housing. And while YIMBY and NIMBY are terms usually mentioned in discussions around housing, they also work when discussing commercial development. 

While communities and major developments frequently find themselves at odds with one another, NIMBYism may actually be on the decline. In California, several factors are pointing to NIMBYism falling out of favor. According to the California Planning & Development Report, these factors include the rise of the state’s YIMBY movement, the end of single-family zoning in cities like Sacramento and Berkeley, and the state legislature passing several pro-housing laws at a fast pace. In a survey taken last August, 62 percent of respondents said they were more welcoming of new development than they were before the pandemic when only 49 percent of respondents were pro-development. However, the survey also found that when it came to low-income housing and lab facilities, like the one in Boston, a NIMBYist attitude persisted, with only 31 percent of respondents welcome to public housing and an even smaller percentage, 20 percent, open to welcoming lab facilities in their neighborhood. 

The life sciences industry is booming and has been for some time. Scientific breakthroughs in gene editing discovered more than a decade ago are still fueling the creation of startups focused on the gene therapy field. In 2021, the sector recorded one of its best years on record. The hot market was further bolstered by the race to develop vaccines, and a record number of IPOs were formed. While 2022 saw the segment’s numbers come back down to Earth, there is still a lot of momentum in the sector. Demand for biotech and life science space has remained strong, and in the life sciences industry, it’s all about the clusters. Developing a lab property outside a life science cluster is possible, but it’s not attractive for upstart companies, who benefit from being near research and development centers. Aside from Boston/Cambridge, other life sciences clusters are scattered across the Northeast and the West Coast, with hubs in Philadelphia, New Jersey, San Diego, and San Francisco.

In the Boston area, which has not been immune to the impact COVID-19 has had on office markets, the biotech sector is looked at as the niche that can save the region’s commercial real estate market. The demand for lab space is so strong in Boston that 10 million square feet of office and industrial space has been earmarked to be converted into life sciences space. However, in neighborhoods around the metropolitan area, residents aren’t exactly welcoming the conversion plans with open arms. In one case, the owners of a building in South Boston filed a lawsuit in 2021 against the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal over being denied a proposal to convert the five-story building into lab space. “I think every one of us who lives in a residential district has to think about what would you do, what would you say, if a research lab and a manufacturing lab topped up abutting you,” the Zoning Board of Appeal Chairman Christine Araujo said in a meeting at the time.

Efforts to block office developments in urban neighborhoods have worked before. Back in November, during the midterm elections, Miami Beach voters shot down three separate major real estate developments that were seeking approval: a two-tower waterfront condo project from Related Companies, a 130,000-square-foot office project from Starwood Investment Group and Integra Investments, and a mixed-use development with office, residential and retail from The Peebles Corp. Don Peebles, Founder & CEO of The Peebles Corp., said after the results came in that he would consider trying again. “We will consider working with the city to make some adjustments to our proposal and consider presenting it to the voters again without such a crowded and controversial group of ballot questions,” he said. “That would give the voters the opportunity to focus on the many public benefits from our proposal.”

In Boston, GI Partners proposed converting an existing 97,000-square-foot office building at 51 Melcher St. into a life-science lab. The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) tabled the project after receiving pushback from local residents. (Image: Studio Troika)

Getting to yes

As battles will likely continue in Boston over the many lab conversions that will probably take place over the next several months and years, it’s helpful to look at how developments in other cities got the green light. One of the most well-known examples of a major development getting the community’s approval was the massive Hudson Yards project in New York City. For years, the idea of transforming the large Midtown West site, mainly dominated by rail yards, was just that, an idea. It finally came to fruition in 2012 when Related Companies and Oxford Properties broke ground on 10 Hudson Yards, kicking off a mega-development that is still in the construction process. Residential towers have been completed, and big-name office tenants have relocated to office buildings in the neighborhood, which even got a new Hudson Yards subway station. The team behind the development spent years engaging with residents and community stakeholders and holding extensive public meetings and events to present their plans to the surrounding community. As part of the project, numerous public spaces, parks, a public school, affordable housing, upgraded transportation, and infrastructure needs were included as part of the plan. 

In another example, developer Crescent Heights gained the approval to go forward with its Sunset Harbour mixed-use project in Miami Beach, Florida, in 2014. The developer’s success was attributed to engaging with the community early in the planning process and holding public meetings and workshops to listen and get feedback on the project. They were also careful to incorporate specific community priorities into the project’s design, like providing for public waterfront access and expanding the amount of green space within the development.

Every project is different, just as every community is different. Arista Strungys, a principal at the planning firm Camiros, told me that, when going into a project, the first step is identifying the community’s particular sensitivities. That could mean anything from the size and height of facilities or how the development will impact traffic. “It’s issues of transition that are key,” Strungys said, pointing to the importance of development teams looking at ways to create transitions between building heights like transition yards and buffers. Strungys, whose expertise is in zoning, said for issues of increased traffic in certain spots, directing access onto things like arterial roads as opposed to any local streets would ease the traffic load. 

While Boston city officials are still hammering out its life sciences guidelines draft for public review (which is expected to be completed sometime in February), its initial release noted that part of the agenda will include planning life science developments based on each neighborhood’s “unique context.” To do so, they are partnering with other city agencies to make sure public health and safety are properly addressed and addressing concerns around noise and environmental impacts. New life science developments will also pay linkage fees to fund the city’s affordable housing and job training programs.

In today’s ultra-connected and always online environment, it’s easier than ever to communicate, and that’s the first thing teams behind development projects should be thinking about when starting a project. Listening and opening up a conversation with the local community is crucial in getting a project approved in places like Boston that are experiencing a surge in new development while also drawing concerns from a lot of neighborhood residents. Finding common ground might be more likely if developers are engaged and open with the community from the beginning. 

With many Americans working from home on a part- or full-time basis, people are more aware and involved in what’s happening in their communities. With the renewed focus lately on revitalizing urban or suburban neighborhoods, developers would be wise to take cues from those who have previously been successful in getting the community onboard with their development and focus on what’s most important to residents.

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