The latest plans by developers of Arsenal Yards to add biotech research and development space to the multi-use development have been put on hold by the Planning Board.
Until now, the focus of the development has been creating new retail and residential space on the former Arsenal Mall property. Developers also have plans to renovate the historic brick buildings on the site, including Building A (where Marshall’s is located). Wednesday night Boylston Properties presented a request to change the approved plans for Building A to allow biotech tenants on the second floor.
Mark Deschenes of Boylston Properties said that plans changed since Phase 1 was approved by the Planning Board in May 2017.
“Building A, the historic building on the south side of the property, was originally permitted about a year ago essentially to be all retail space,” Deschenes said. “Over the last several months we have worked to convert it to office space.”
Other changes include moving Chipotle to another location, creating new entrances, and change the River Green space to give some space for office workers to eat lunch and sit outside, said Laura Portney of PCA.
Boylston Properties has had success of finding biotech tenants for another of its Watertown Properties, the Linx Building on Arsenal Street. They seek to lease the second floor of Building A to similar companies, which would require the installation of specialized equipment for the lab space, including special chemical showers and air changers.
Planning Board Chair Jeffrey Brown noted that the amendment calls for having Biosafety Level 2 labs.
Deschenes said there are four Biosafety Levels with four being the most serious.
“They are not going to be spreading highly infectious diseases or anything. It will be largely contained to labs,” Deschenes said. “We don’t have specific tenants. The things being done at Linx, or other buildings, is working with localized experiments, research and development to develop proteins, develop pharmaceuticals.
“They have higher requirements for air changes, other equipment, which is why we have so much mechanical space.”
The equipment would in mechanical spaces in the form of large boxes that would protrude out of the top of the south side of the roof, which faces Arsenal Park.
Resident Elodia Thomas said that she is concerned with what Biosafety Level 2 would mean, and she does not want the Planning Board to rush into approving the changes. She said that not many residents heard that the biotech request was going to be discussed at the meeting, and what it would mean.
“How many of you toured the Linx building? It is a stunning building, and it has all the safety equipment: special showers and air control. It has all these things because it is a lab building,” Thomas said. “Now you are adding a Level 2 use to this building, a new use to land that is public park, retail, a hotel and apartments. I don’t know where there Level 2 labs are in the Boston area in similar settings.”
Thomas also noted that some examples of things that Level 2 lab could be working on include equine encephalitis viruses and HIV, and staph infections.
East End Town Councilor Angeline Kounelis had similar concerns. She said she believes more information is needed before the Planning Board makes its decision.
“Linx and the other lab buildings are stand alone properties. Everyone in those buildings understands what’s going on around them,” Kounelis said. “Here we have retail, with hundreds of people coming in and out, and the park. There will be deliveries being made, with chemicals and who knows what, for use in that parcel. All of this would be in the confines of the park, retail and residential areas with customers of the parcel who won’t know whats going on there.”
Deschenes said there are plenty of examples of Level 2 lab space built next to residential buildings, including Blackstone Science Square in Cambridge, the Alewife Research Center in Cambridge, and the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square.
Brown said that members of the Planning Board and the public have questions and concerns about the labs.
“I am hearing concern over something that a lot of us don’t now anything about,” Brown said. “It was in the report but we need to feel comfortable with it and we need to know how much of it is going on in Watertown and around the area — and that it works. Continuing (the hearing to the next meeting) is a reasonable thing to do if you are coming back next month.”
The Planning Board voted to continue the hearing and bring it back at its September meeting, when Boylston Properties will also be presenting its amendment on the requested additional height amendment for the planned residential tower.