Founder, Ink Block
In Boston, there are probably three major challenges that we're all trying to look at: public transportation, public education, and affordable housing.
by Heidi Legg
Did you know the old Herald building is now residential? Did you know that we are about to see an urban park developed between the Herald and Fort Point? As Boston sees another corner of its past transformed into urban living that looks like Whole Foods meets Zipcar, and as the lines between work and play blur and baby boomers rush back into the city alongside millennials, developer Ted Tye sees this as an opportune time for Boston to think about what urbanization looks like.
Tye outlines three areas where he thinks Boston must focus if it hopes to lead as one of the great cities: public transportation, public education, and affordable housing. It was refreshing to hear a developer discuss these things and have the foresight to see their worth to his own bottom line. We sat down with him to hear about his plans for Ink Block, how he has transformed the former Boston Herald headquarters at 300 Harrison Avenue in the South End into a residential neighborhood with a new urban park under the 93 highway, and why he believes these three tenets to city building matter.
Ted Tye, who lived in Newton for 27 years and now lives in Boston, has developed The Circle at Cleveland Circle, Market Street in Lynnfield, Station Landing in Medford, Woodland Station in Newton, Waterstone is Wellesley and Forge Park in Franklin, Massachusetts. A graduate of both Tufts and Harvard Business School, this kid from Haverhill knows Boston.
Our early interview with Dick Friedman, developer and owner of the Charles Hotel, appealed because The Charles is a magnet in Cambridge and our spiritual home, and our interview with Tim Rowe, developer of the Cambridge Innovation Center appealed as the fountainhead of startup culture. As a new media company, we were intrigued by the transformation of the old Herald site and the metaphor of societies then and now. It was not lost on me to see the old Herald sign hanging in a flagship Whole Foods with a private entrance for Ink Block residents. Convenience, work/play blurring and the demand for organic food by urbanites – these are our times and developers have long capitalized and responded to demand.
Where did you live in your twenties and thirties?
I actually lived in Boston. I was right in this area and I also lived for a short while in Arlington, in Cambridge, in Watertown and ultimately moved to Newton where I have lived for about twenty-eight years.
Does this place have meaning for you or is your interest purely that of a developer?
I've always been interested in redevelopment. I grew up in a mill town where I saw one of the first examples of urban renewal, which was the nice way of saying taking bulldozers and knocking down great old buildings. Redevelopment has always been a big interest for me and I knew this neighborhood. It wasn't necessarily one that you wanted to go into for a long time.
I'm also a journalism freak. I've had opportunities over the years to go into the Boston Herald and into the Boston Globe and see it with the eyes of a developer, where every interesting building or site is a future opportunity. I’m always looking and thinking.
Why is it that society seems so nostalgic for newspapers and old media?
In my career, we've restored a lot of old, interesting places. I've restored a public library, an old watch factory, and a mill, and you walk into all of those spaces and hear the whispers of the past. I don't think I've ever heard it as strongly as I did with the Herald.
We owned the building for five years while they still operated, and when I walked through the building, there were people who had worked there for years and years and years. There's a certain romance to the big printing presses and what they did. As you come back today and look around the building and see some of the relics that we saved, it was really all about the people. It was the people who worked in the newsroom. It was the people who worked on the presses - the union pressmen - and they all cared deeply. We actually found a way to include them at times in the process.
We invited them back to come see the building before it was actually demolished. Then we saved some bricks from the building for them. Being able to carry a brick away with them really touched them and as you go into the new building now, you'll see the preserved Boston Herald sign that's still here. You'll see photo collages that show the people who were actually in the building and all sorts of interesting touches that we brought back just to remember what was here before. The site that we're on today has some incredible history that goes back even further than the Herald years. We’re in Boston. We're in a place that really relishes history.
What are the demographics of your renters?
We really had a target demographic in mind when we did this, which was a younger person who really wanted something very different than the market had to offer. Our age demographic is skewing at about thirty-seven, on average, and we range from mid-twenties to probably mid-forties.
What does the 'new urbanism' look like for a thirty-something?
I'm older than thirty-something but I'm a perfect example of somebody who lived in the suburbs and moved back to the city. In a city like Boston, there's an incredible influx of people into the city - younger and older - and that's what we're seeing in this development. I believe the number is 40,000 of those who've moved into the city in the last couple of years, which is phenomenal. It's an incredible number. We see it both in our residential development and in our office development and it's a real trend.
I was talking to someone last night at an event who said, 'I have a startup company. I'm in the suburbs and I have to move to the city because the young people don't have cars where they used to have cars. They want to be able to walk to work. They want to be able to use public transportation. They want to be able to have all sorts of amenities around them all times of the day.'
They choose a phone and laptop before a car today.
Exactly. And if I have an Uber and maybe a Zipcar if I need one, I'm in great shape. Why have a car?
How is American urbanism changing?
I think urbanism is a strong movement and it's been helped in a city like Boston by good economic times. This has clearly allowed some things to move ahead and be built that would not otherwise have been built, but what we're seeing is a collection of interesting neighborhoods emerging - whether it be the Seaport neighborhood or here at Ink Block in the South End. We're seeing East Boston getting new development and North Station emerging as an interesting area, and they tend to be kind of little urban villages almost unto themselves.
We are seeing these communities emerge and there's residential, there's retail, some office environments show up. We're seeing a lot of people live/work simultaneously. If you go around here most days, you'll see people sitting there with a laptop and this common space becomes a home office. Why would you commute to an office? People don't do that anymore. We're seeing a strong interest in open office spaces, collegial office spaces, connecting stairs, ping-pong tables, lounges, and no walls.
Where is the retreat from all this constant interconnectivity?
It brings a little bit of play to the work environment and it's not all urban. Those of us in the development area also think about the suburban and we have a major office development in Burlington, Massachusetts. I would call it the regional hub in Boston and we have had to take 1970/80s office environments and figure out how to bring them into 2020. It used to be called New England Executive Park. It's now rebranded as The District – we're bringing in restaurants and we're creating a main street feel with fitness and hotels and pedestrian areas and bike paths.
London has a lot of hubs and high streets. Is that the direction Boston is going?
A little bit. In the suburbs, in particular, we are bringing urban amenities and that style that everybody's looking for in the city to a suburban hub. That’s not easy because I think we've seen a lot of high tech companies say, 'we need to be in the city.' We’re trying to find reasons for them to bring city amenities out to the suburbs as well and create that kind of urban-like hub in a different environment.
Do you think about how to retain a neighborhood's current feel and not homogenize everything?
The first thing we thought of at Ink Block is what is texture? How do we create it? When we started thinking about this Ink Block project in 2006, there was sagebrush rolling down the street. No one came here. There was no reason to come here. It was an area that had some crime. It was a fading industrial area. The first question was, ‘what do you do with that?’ And we said, ‘let's not push it away; let's actually embrace the grittiness of the area and let's incorporate that into the brand.’ We came up with this Ink Block concept because 'ink' is obviously for the old newspaper that was here and 'block' because it is a whole block of the city. You can't just build a building if you want to change a huge neighborhood. You have to build a place, and that's multiple buildings. It’s a place that people have to identify with and a place where they want to go. I often sit down with a pad of paper and I say, 'okay, Ink Block - here's the story. I'm going to write the story of Ink Block and create a brand around it' and part of that brand was not to be another generic apartment community or mixed use community in the city.
You can go into a lot of these beautiful new developments and close your eyes and walk up to one of the units and you really are anywhere. We wanted people to walk in the door here and understand that they were in Ink Block because it was distinctive and different from what everybody else was doing in the city. That’s where we started. The challenge that we have here is keeping it fresh, keeping it interesting, keeping the edge and grittiness to it, and then moving it forward.
Do rental properties appeal more to accomplish this versus owning?
Well, we're a mix. So, we do have rental and we do have ownership. If you want to create that velocity of development, putting the 'there there' down very quickly, you've got to mix it up. You can't build all apartments, actually. You've to build apartments. You've to build condos. You've to build retail and in some cases, offices. You've to create the velocity very quickly so that your brand is in place and people can see it and experience it.
What will Boston look like in ten years?
Well, hopefully we won't have rising waters and look like Venice. That would be the first challenge. I think Boston will continue to develop in selected areas. The Seaport is clearly an area in huge transition as is the South End, as is North Station. We'll get more good development. That comes with challenges, I think, for any city.
In Boston, there are probably three major challenges that we're all trying to look at: transportation, education, and affordable housing.
Can you define them?
The first would be public transportation. Any great city needs a good transportation system. We don't have one. We have an aging transportation system. The reinvestment in transportation in the city is going to be really critical over time and I don't know how that's going to be accomplished, but the expansion of the transportation system will be critical in bringing in new areas.
Number two is actually education, which sounds like an unusual thing for a developer to be talking about but all of these people, generally younger, are moving to the city and what happens when the twenty-five year olds become thirty five year olds and they start to have children? Do, we have a good school system that can really support keeping them in the city? It's a problem and it's a challenge.
In cities, education seems attainable only to the privileged. There is private school, which seems unattainable to most.
There are some good parts about the education system but it could be better and I think it's the challenge that a lot of our more upscale, younger folks see. They love living in the city and then they reach this point where they have a school age kid and their choices are the public education system – which some of them will take – or private school which has some limitations. Or do they move to the suburbs and take advantage of a suburban school system?
I think number three is that with all of the good development happening, how do you keep it affordable? How do you keep housing affordable? How do you get middle-income housing? How do you continue to develop an affordable housing stock? And at times like this where there's a frenzy of activity and everything is so expensive, it is very, very difficult to cater to the middle market. I know that's something that city hall is looking at and the development community has been involved in the discussion. It's really an ongoing challenge.
What's the degree of difficulty of getting these conversations going in Boston?
A really interesting piece has been the Boston 2024 Olympic bid. While I wasn't a big fan of the Olympics, it was a great way to get a lot of conversations started about some of these issues. People realized that the Olympics couldn't come without a way to move people around. It put some focus on areas of the city that are ripe for redevelopment. The Widett Circle area is an example. Now it has food markets and adjacent to that are flower markets. Is there a better use? Could it become a new neighborhood in the city?
Mayor Walsh has been great about trying to reach out to the development community and engage in discussions. I think it's a combination where you bring the business community in and you make them part of the solution, but at the same time you don't overburden them with mitigation fees or other development obligations that kill the golden goose that's creating all of this new activity in the city. It’s a very careful balance.
Why should Boston care right now about redevelopment?
The opportunity in Boston is to create a great city and it's not going to be a great city without a lot of younger/older/more successful people feeling that they can live in the city. If you look at some of the cities that are really struggling, they roll up the sidewalks at five o'clock when everybody leaves. They haven't been able to create a good residential base.
New York - it's a natural. People live in the city and they work in the city and they love it. Hartford is another example in that they haven’t been successful in creating a residential base, everybody leaves that city, and it's not a very active nightlife. I think for Boston to be a great city, the influx of people who live in Boston, who care about Boston, who become involved in both charitable and nonprofit activities in the city, who care about education, who care about crime, who care about all the issues that every city has, need to live in it. It doesn't come from people coming into the city and then exiting out on the Mass Pike every day. It comes from people who live here and care more about it in different sorts of ways and become involved.
Is it true the City has given you space to create an urban park?
It’s really an extension of Ink Block. We want to create a very cool urban park under the highway. We’re working with the Mass Department of Transportation and taking a space that extends from Ink Block all the way to Fort Point Channel, and it will have some parking but it will also have a very active arts focus. We will also have a market 26 Sundays during the year. We are working with South End Open Markets and they are bringing the traditional South End market up to Ink Block and expanding it. That will include food trucks, a farmer’s market, and an arts market.
Where? Under the 93 highway?
It'll be in that area which extends beyond the underpass actually across the Broadway Bridge. There's some green space along Fort Point Channel as well.
What it does is really activate a space that was kind of dark and no one would ever have any reason to go there. It connects South Boston and the South End making them more accessible to one another. It'll be staffed twenty-four hours a day.
Will it be pedestrian only or cars?
Well, there are good pedestrian routes already and they are going to be improved as part of the project. There'll be new lighting. It really brings the South Boston and South End communities together, because it's not a walk in the past that a lot of people necessarily would have taken.
Who's funding it?
It's going to be constructed by MassDOT and it will then be turned over to us and operated by us under a long-term lease arrangement. It's not, 'here's the space' but it's 'here's the space and really make something out of it in terms of programming.' We had a very creative proposal that included some people from the arts community that got involved with it and it's going to expand the whole concept of this exciting new neighborhood.
What event are you most looking forward to?
We just had a good one last night. When I thought about this brand, I wondered how you keep the lights on eighteen hours a day. How do you create energy on the street? How do you take that area that people used to think of as not a great place to go at night and make it a destination? We have five different restaurants coming in. We've required all of them to have cafe seating out on the wide sidewalks on the street. We've required all of them to stay open late. We have a really fun mix from a celebrity chef to a rock star to a high end-spinning studio to TRX training. It reinforces this whole idea of Ink Block as a fun, young, and healthy place to be, and this spring people will be spilling out onto those sidewalks.
Are independent retailers welcome?
We have several independent restaurants; we turned away national retailers because we did not want that to be what we represented here. We want to have more of an indie feel to it. The restaurants are people who are local.
When will we know who they are?
In a couple weeks.
Where's your favorite lunch/cocktail place?
One of the things I do for fun is I've also invested in professional sports. I'm currently involved in the ownership group of a basketball team - an NBA development league team - in Portland, Maine called the Maine Red Claws and it gives me a great excuse to go up to a restaurant called Fore Street in Portland which is one of my favorites.
Fact Sheet from Ink Block:
The six-acre site includes 315 apartments in three distinct buildings, a 77-unit luxury condominium building, Sepia, which is 100% pre-sold and opening in November 2015, a 200-key AC Hotel by Marriott, and a 79-unit new condominium building, Siena, which is now pre-selling and will be completed in 2017.
Anchored by a flagship 50,000 square foot Whole Foods, other retail includes Capital One 360 Cafe, and Turnstyle Cycle, Fuji @ Ink Block, and Chef Colin Lynch's Bar Mezzana, which are all set to open in early 2016.