East Pier Condos in East Boston

Building starts on luxe housing development as waterfront shows signs of renewal

For decades, maritime crews had perhaps the best waterfront view of Boston  a spectacular downtown skyline seen from Pier One in East Boston. Soon that view will be available from living rooms.

Six years after winning rights to build there, Roseland Property Co. has begun construction on East Pier, a seven-building, 550-unit luxury condominium and apartment complex.

Four of the buildings will replace a huge warehouse on the pier, which juts out the length of two football fields into Boston Harbor, while the remaining three will go on the landside portion of the 13acre site.

Roseland is working with Lennar Urban Northeast on the project, and a few weeks ago the developers began driving the first of 1,500 square concrete pilings some 140 feet deep along Marginal Street.

This hasn’t been prime space, said Jed Lowry, director of asset management for Lennar, during a tour of the muddy, debris-strewn harbor’s edge. It will be a place where people can really come out.

Historically a center of shipbuilding and other maritime uses, the East Boston waterfront fell into disuse in the latter part of the 20th century, with some properties becoming derelict and others still part of a working waterfront worn at the edges.

But the weedy lots, underused warehouses, decaying wood pilings, and broken piers are beginning to give way to residential life and leisure. Piers Park, for example, increasingly draws visitors from the neighborhood and beyond, and is slated to be expanded right up to East Pier’s edge.

WinnDevelopment plans another luxury condo project on the water just to the north, and some area residents have concerns about the new found popularity of a neighborhood known for its working class and immigrant populations.

The additional traffic on Eastie’s narrow streets is one. The other, said Mary Ellen Welch, a lifelong resident of Jeffries Point is  although we do welcome everybody who comes here, no matter what their economic status  some of us are afraid it’s going to be prohibitive for people of ordinary means to live in East Boston much longer. She cited increasing rents, high selling prices, and increases in real estate taxes.

Roseland specializes in rental apartments, and Lennar Urban Northeast is a division of big home builder Lennar Corp.

The two are constructing a $275 million array of 5- and 7-story glass, metal, and masonry buildings. The three landside buildings will be completed first, in about two years; the four pier buildings are scheduled to open in early 2010. The great, white industrial structure on the pier will be demolished.

There really isn’t anything like it because the view is so good, said Joseph G. Shea, senior vice president for Roseland. It’s the best view of the city in the city.

The landside buildings will be staggered on the property to maximize views of downtown. In addition to the views, the property will have proximity to transportation  a two-minute walk to the Blue Line, and a developer-subsidized water shuttle at the end of nearby Lewis Street.

More than half of the pier property will be reserved as parks and other public space. The developers are obligated to build and maintain 1,800 additional feet of the Boston Harborwalk.

About 65,000 square feet of the development on the ground floor will house restaurants, retail establishments, and meeting areas accessible to everyone, and much of that will face the water.

As part of their 95-year lease with the Massachusetts Port Authority, which owns the property, East Pier’s developers have committed to building a commercial marina, as well as constructing a dock for transportation, and arranging for a permanent water shuttle. They have already begun expanding and, with a partner, operating Boston Shipyard, a major marine repair and manufacturing facility nearby.

East Pier was originally known as Portside at Pier One and planned as apartments. As the condo market got red hot several years ago, Lennar joined the team, and the project was converted to salable units.

However, the developers now face a softer real estate market, with condo prices in particular in retreat. Residences are expected to start in the mid-$300,000s, for one-bedrooms and go over $2 million for two-level, two-bedroom units on the water’s edge.

One building, still called Port side, will have 177 rental apartments.

The architect is ADD Inc. of Cambridge. The Boston office of the construction firm Skanska is not only driving piles on land but also will brace the concrete slab over the water by driving additional supporting piles diagonally into the harbor bottom.

About 160 parking spaces will be located at ground level in buildings on the pier; the remaining 640 will be mostly underground.

Shea said the project would have been completed a couple of years ago  about the peak of the condo market  but for a lengthy permitting process and negotiations with government agencies over changing the waterfront use from industrial to residential.

Except for that, You’d be sitting in your living room looking at the view, Shea said.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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