News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Marcella Bombardieri, The Boston Globe
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 26--Many Bostonians were amazed when Millennium Partners and the Ritz-Carlton decided to spend half a billion dollars building an enormous, two-tower, 1.8 million-square-foot complex with more than 300 condos, a hotel, health club, and movie theater on the "wrong" side of the Boston Common, a long-suffering neighborhood with little residential space and more than its fair share of crime and seediness.
The juxtaposition is as breathtaking as the views from the 40th-floor penthouses -- residents have paid between $710,000 and $7.1 million for their address, on the edge of what remains of the Combat Zone. Reports of drug activity in the vicinity are still common.
The mammoth project, squeezed around existing buildings, envelops three sides of a homeless shelter. Condominiums have sold at a slower rate than some real estate specialists anticipated, partly due to the economy. And then, on a Saturday night in December, a man was shot to death on Tremont Street.
But rather than sound the death knell for the project, the shooting only briefly obscured a deeper truth: More than a year after many residents moved in, most observers agree that the Ritz Towers has proven a big success. Not just for its high-end developers or its wealthy inhabitants, but for the city as well.
With its sheer size, urban locale, and comprehensive amenities from dry cleaner to day care, residents and visitors alike use the same words to describe the feel of Ritz-Carlton Hotel & Towers, Boston Common.
Now, Boston officials are eager for more Manhattan-style living in the thick of the city. City Hall recently more than doubled the allowable height of Financial District construction as long as buildings are at least half residential. This alone could bring 2,000 new housing units downtown.
To many, Boston will become a better place for this infusion -- wealthier, safer, and more fun not just for those who can buy premium real estate, but for everyone.
"We've come over time to understand that mixed use is the urban design pattern that works best," said Boston Redevelopment Authority director Mark Maloney. "We want Boston to be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week city."
To that end, the South Boston waterfront development will include 400 residences. Other luxury projects in the works include the Belvedere on Huntington Avenue and Atelier 505 in the South End. New lofts and condos are also going up near the Ritz on Washington and Boylston streets.
Liberty Place, a 439-unit apartment building in Chinatown, was recently green-lighted and will be built on the former site of the Naked i, a strip club.
Anthony Pangaro, a principal in Millennium Partners-Boston, argues that the Ritz and Emerson College, which has moved into the neighborhood in recent years, are pioneers who opened up the once woeful area.
"No one ever thought of living there before," Pangaro said. "None of that would have happened in the absence of the Ritz Towers being done."
The biggest criticism one hears is that the Ritz Residences haven't sold as well as expected. But Pangaro said he's happy with the results so far, and that it takes awhile for the market to absorb so many pricey apartments. He said 65 percent of the condos have been sold and 10 percent rented.
Partners Steve Williams and Michael Stillman had lived in a full-service building in midtown Manhattan before moving to Jamaica Plain a couple of years ago. Missing the urban experience, they started looking around in Boston proper. At first, Stillman insisted "we cannot move into a building with the name 'Ritz."'
But soon they were seduced by the views, the hotel-like concierge services, and the modern look of large windows, high ceilings, granite, and cherry wood. So they bought a 1,600-square-foot two-bedroom and moved in with their two Chihuahuas. They love being in walking range of Chinatown and Newbury Street.
The Tremont Street shooting of 18-year-old Nabil Essaid shocked them, but didn't prompt any reexamination of their choice. Police have not made any arrests but said they believed the killer was a "loose acquaintance" of the victim.
"We said, 'Oh my God, we could have been walking this dog and gotten shot,"' said Williams, 38, a doctor. "But violence can occur anywhere."
Residents of the towers, 1 and 2 Avery Street, reported one robbery and five assaults to Boston police in 2002, according to police records, and only the robbery involved a weapon. Many female residents steer clear of Chinatown and Washington Street at night. But the lack of a grocery store on the premises seems to be more of a problem than area crime.
"We feel really recharged and content," Williams said of life at 2 Avery Street. "The one thing that does worry me a little bit is, what will happen to Chinatown? I don't want to see people forced out of their homes."
That is exactly the criticism of some Chinatown activists, despite arrangements that ensure developers funnel money into affordable housing. "I can sense the gentrification squeezing working people out of the community," said Serene Wong, an organizer with the Chinese Progressive Association.
Others are simply grateful the neighborhood is getting better. "We couldn't have asked for a better relationship," said Ira Greiff, director of the St. Francis House homeless shelter, on Boylston Street.
Millennium funded the construction of an atrium at St. Francis so patrons don't have to line up outside anymore before meals -- and clog the sidewalks in view of Ritz patrons. It also hired several formerly homeless St. Francis clients to work at the Loews theater and the Sports Club/LA, Greiff said. One German couple staying at the Ritz hotel saw art made by shelter residents hanging in the window, and came in and bought a painting.
It's not just the rich who use the amenities of the Ritz Towers. The sports club, which is the size of two football fields, has some 6,000 members, and the movie theater consistently ranks among the top three grossing Loews in the United States, Pangaro said.
And for those who can afford to buy, the Ritz has offered the texture of an urban community. Marlene Nussbaum and her husband spent nearly 30 years in Newton. A year ago, they moved to the Ritz, where "I have more of a sense of community than I did all those years in the suburbs," said Nussbaum, 54, a principal in an advertising company.
Neighbors have become so friendly that they have begun organizing their own social events, like a "holiday stroll" where seven South Tower owners opened up their condos for a progressive evening party.
Some of the residents speak so glowingly, it's as if there's nothing the Ritz and its fleet of eager service personnel can't clean up and make better.
"The only disappointment I've had was that it was too foggy to enjoy the New Year's Eve fireworks," said Wendy Caswell, 44, a divorced high-tech entrepreneur who lives in a three-bedroom on the 29th floor. "You wanted to call down [to the concierge] and say, 'Could you please illuminate the fog?' But they couldn't."
-----To see more of The Boston Globe, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.boston.com/globe
(c) 2003, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. MAR, LTR,