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It was a parking lot. Now it’s a park, and the ‘center of gravity’ in reimagined Fenway neighborhood

BOSTON, MA - 06/20/2019 The parking lot in front of the Landmark Center, which was recently renovated into new offices and retail businesses, has been converted into a new green space. The neighborhood has undergone a massive transformation in the past 20 years and the recent green space signifies major change. Fenway Sears Building Erin Clark for The Boston Globe
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe
What once was a sea of asphalt has been transformed into a one-acre park in front of 401 Park in the Fenway.

Several months ago, bulldozers rolled into a paved parcel in the Fenway neighborhood and did something that would have made Joni Mitchell grin: They tore up an acre-sized parking lot that had long served the Landmark Center’s big box stores to make way for a verdant stretch of grass. 

The new park is a finishing touch on the $650 million redevelopment of the historic Sears, Roebuck and Co. warehouse and distribution center, a yellow-brick Art Deco structure that has served as a gateway to the Fenway for 90 years. The building, renamed 401 Park, is now a mixed-use retail and office behemoth that’s home to the new Time Out Market, a food hall that opened last month, and, soon, a Trillium beer garden. 

Steve Samuels, the developer of the project — and architect of the 20-year makeover of the Fenway neighborhood — can’t contain his excitement about that green patch out front. It’s a link to the Emerald Necklace, he said in a recent interview in his office overlooking the neighborhood, and an extension of Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of a unified city, a gathering place that will “change the center of gravity in the Fenway.”

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Samuels is the head of Samuels & Associates and the heir to a grocery store development family that has built shopping plazas nationwide. He had a supermarket in mind when he contemplated building in the Fenway in the late 1990s, when it was still a sea of parking lots, low-slung hotels, and gas stations that catered to ballpark visitors and passing travelers.

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Back then, he said, the Fenway was the “hole in the doughnut” — surrounded by established, thriving neighborhoods but lacking a character of its own.

“It sort of felt like Route 1,” he said, “it could have been anywhere in the US.” 

But it wasn’t. Fenway Park loomed large, both in a physical sense and in its seasonal ebb and flow of visitors. At the start of the 2000s, the ballpark owners’ plans to tear down the park and use eminent domain to build a new one were met with resistance from neighborhood groups.

Amid the uncertainty, Samuels emerged as a developer interested in giving residents the kind of growth they wanted — a neighborhood that was more “walkable and less car-dependent, more social, and with real amenities,” said David Manfredi, a principal of Elkus Manfredi Architects who has collaborated with Samuels.

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After the plans for a new ballpark fizzled, Samuels began buying up blocks of the Fenway, parcel by parcel, slowly gaining the trust of the surrounding neighbors.

Developer Steve Samuels (left) and hotelier Robin Brown collaborated on the Verb hotel.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2014
Developer Steve Samuels (left) and hotelier Robin Brown collaborated on the Verb hotel.

Fredericka Veikley, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s and is a longtime board member of the Fenway Civic Association, remembered an early meeting with Samuels and his team in which she found them “surprisingly truthful,” she said. 

“They really respected and in some ways honored the knowledge” that the residents had gleaned from their decades of living in the area. 

Samuels also cultivated a close relationship with Thomas M. Menino, the mayor at the time, and his administration that helped facilitate rezoning efforts to build towers in the region. Over time, a new neighborhood began to emerge. 

The Fenway Triangle Trilogy tower brought luxury apartments to a neighborhood once dominated by student housing, as well as the home-goods store West Elm and the reality-TV chef Tiffani Faison’s first restaurant, Sweet Cheeks Q. The building at 1330 Boylston brought more apartments and a new home for the Fenway Community Health Center. 

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In the Van Ness building across the way, Samuels brought in a Target — and convinced the retailer to experiment with its layout. Normally a store of that size has a massive footprint that destroys a block, he said, but this design spanned the second and third floors and had windows that allowed customers to stay connected to the streetscape.

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/File

Faison now owns three restaurants in the Fenway and will soon open her fourth, the 100-seat Italian spot Orfano, in the Pierce Boston building, the latest luxury condo tower in Samuels’ portfolio. She said she had qualms when she first learned that a Target would move into the neighborhood.

“Would people shop for tampons and then get a cocktail at Tiger Mama?” she joked. “But many people do. There’s a functionality to the Fenway.”

But Samuels did not want that functionality to push the neighborhood into becoming a faceless urban shopping corridor. He peppered the neighborhood with pop-up stores, introduced new local food concepts, and installed public art, including 401 Park’s new sculptural installation, Nicole Eisenman’s “Grouping of Works from Fountain.”

Emily Isenberg, a retail consultant who has worked with Samuels, said that he ultimately saw the neighborhood needed a personality of its own. 

“There was such a mind-set around Fenway and the identity around the ballpark, and Steve was always looking at ‘How can we make this place more than that?’ ” she said. 

Some of Samuels’ most distinctive contributions to the neighborhood aren’t his most profitable. He transformed a former gas station into Tasty Burger, a restaurant with a retro concept that has now expanded across the city. He left the bones of the former Howard Johnson’s motor lodge and reimagined it as the hip Verb Hotel, a boutique property with a rock ’n’ roll motif that he’s now looking to take national.

“There’s a great quote from [urban theorist] Jane Jacobs that new ideas love old buildings,” Manfredi said. “The Verb and Tasty Burger are as important in making place as any of the new high-rise buildings.”

 The ground floor of the old Sears building, which once housed a Best Buy,  attracted Julio Bruno, the chief executive of Time Out Group, who sought “iconic spaces that are representative of the city” in a site for a new marketplace.

The building’s trajectory from Sears warehouse to Best Buy to buzzed-about food hall is the perfect example of how Americans’ consumption habits have shifted, said George Thrush, a professor at the School of Architecture at Northeastern University. “The evolution of this place is stunning.”

Children played in the newly installed water fountain in front of 401 Park (the former Landmark Center) in Boston.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Children played in the newly installed water fountain in front of 401 Park (the former Landmark Center) in Boston.

The Samuels team has “done a great job at trying to make what is an otherwise completely generic retail development into a place with some measure of desirability at the street level,” he said.

“What used to be a miniature suburban parking lot is now a public park, and what used to be a big-box store is a super-permeable place with a lot of doors.” 

The new green space at 401 Park links to the Emerald Necklace via another parcel that was also a parking lot. In the 1960s, Sears convinced the city to pave over a portion of the Emerald Necklace for an employee parking area, but Samuels helped convert it back, exposing the Muddy River once more. (And yes, there is still parking for today’s shoppers inside the garage within the 401 Park building).

The two-decade evolution of the neighborhood has also made it more attractive to other developers, including the Red Sox and Live Nation, which are teaming up on a plan to build a 5,000-seat music venue at the corner of Lansdowne and Ipswich streets.

(John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, also owns The Boston Globe.)

The prospect of even more redevelopment makes some neighborhood advocates nervous about what the Fenway may eventually become. 

Leah Camhi, executive director of the Fenway Community Development Corporation, applauds all that Samuels has accomplished. But she worries that the Time Out Market might cannibalize other small food businesses in the neighborhood.

And she wants Samuels and other developers to look beyond the empty nesters and young professionals and to build more affordable housing, larger units, and places where senior citizens can grow old. 

“We want people to raise their families here, and age in the community here, and that’s not happening now,” she said.

But Samuels said he’s still getting started. 

“We look at the very long view for the neighborhood,” he said, “because we have so many assets here.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.