The City Council agreed today with a request from Councilor Ed Flynn to look at ways to give neighborhoods a say in the construction of life-sciences labs that might be doing research on potentially dangerous diseases right next to residential buildings.
Flynn said he grew concerned last fall when he learned a developer wanted to turn 51 Sleeper St., off Seaport Boulevard, into a life-sciences lab building without any community hearings because the building was already zoned for industrial uses.
Once that wouldn't have raised many eyes, because that area was largely a sleepy collection of fading industrial buildings and parking lots, but today it is a fast growing residential area as well.
And once, Boston's zoning tried to set boundaries between industrial and residential areas. But the past two decades saw a blurring of the lines as the city rushed to encourage "live/work" districts - such as the Seaport - where people could, theoretically, walk to their high-paying jobs from their expensive condos (and then retire for some fancy cocktails at the local expensive bars).
Flynn says the sudden lab boom is a good thing in general for Boston and builds on work of the city's hospitals and existing research facilities at a time when developers are reluctant to build new offices because so many people are now working from home.
"We welcome them," Flynn told fellow councilors today. "There's enormous opportunity, including good jobs for residents."
But at the same time, now that residents are living, or could soon be living, cheek to jowl with labs researching any number of diseases, residents deserve to be heard about the potential impacts of such research, both in terms of public health and safety and other effects on the neighborhood, everything from construction noise to the ways that lab workers might not stick around after work in the same way that traditional office workers might, Flynn said.
Although Sleeper Street is perhaps unique - most new development does require BPDA review and public hearings - Flynn said he is also concerned about buildings that are approved for traditional office space but whose owners then try to switch them to R&D.
City Councilor Michael Flaherty (at large) agreed with the need for resident input, saying one issue is the ventilation and other equipment that goes on the roofs of such buildings - which he said can rise as much as 35 feet above the buildings' official approved heights.
Recent weeks have seen a number of proposals to change what were intended as office or even residential buildings into R&D facilities, even as other developers propose R&D buildings in more traditionally industrial areas, such as the Raymond Flynn Marine Industrial Park.
Just yesterday, one developer changed plans for two apartment towers near the JFK/UMass T stop to one apartment tower and one life-sciences building.
In December, a developer filed plans for a 14-story R&;amp;D building on Lincoln Street at the Rose Kennedy Greenway, across from Chinatown, as a replacement for its originally planned 21-story office building. That was a couple months after another developer proposed changing several floors in a planned 18-story Seaport office building from offices to life sciences.
Also in December, another developer proposed a mixed-use campus on Braintree Street in Allston that would include an R&D building and a residential building.
In September, a developer proposed replacing several businesses along Western Avenue in Allston with a 4-5-acre life-sciences complex - not that far from where Harvard is planing its mixed-use development with an emphasis on R&D.
In November, the company redoing the Kenmore Square block with the Citgo sign on top sought permission to change some proposed retail space to lab space.