Steven Samuels Is Fenway’s Man with the Golden Charm

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steven samuels

The view’s just dandy from the Van Ness, Samuels’s third major Fenway project. Photo by Bob O’Connor.

It’s a white-hot august morning and Steven Samuels and I are dodging the sun in the courtyard of his new Verb Hotel, on Boylston Street. It feels very Hollywood, as this low-slung, ’50s-modern edifice sparkles from reflections off the backyard-size pool. Samuels looks every bit the middle-aged movie mogul in his Varvatos taupe polo shirt, collar spread wide. Something you’d see on Sinatra or Dino, tucked into high-waisted, triple-pleated slacks. His hair does a single smooth wave off his high, lineless forehead. Call it L.A. Casual East. A few steps away, his 10-year-old daughter lounges listlessly like a jaded star, occasionally interrupting us to announce that she’s bored or that Mom’s on the phone or to remind him that they still don’t know who they’re taking to the One Direction concert.

That we’re standing here, at street level, squinting into each other’s sunglasses, shouting over rock tunes piping in from the Verb’s outdoor sound system, defies all real estate logic. By the laws of urban development, we should be at least 10 stories up, gawking at the view—looking directly into Fenway Park—from some carpeted and air-conditioned hotel conference room.

Because chances are this squat, low-bed-count boutique hotel—close enough to the ballpark that a minor league hitter could lob one over the wall right onto the infield from the valet lane—isn’t making a dime.

That’s not anything Samuels needs to worry about right now—he owns half the neighborhood. Just as he’d hoped, the Verb has been glowingly written up in the Globe and the Wall Street Journal as a tribute to the area’s rock ’n’ roll roots, with every detail of the interior reflecting a glamorized version of a Fenway neighborhood that never really was. There are enshrined pieces of the Rathskeller (that demolished Kenmore dive where Boston’s punks discovered sonic distortion and Colombian coke), as well as ephemera from WBCN (the radio station that broadcast the soundtrack of Boston’s counterculture). Every room sports reproductions of the late Boston Phoenix’s lefty sloganeering; a rack of LPs in the lobby can be played on the accompanying Realistic turntable; and Fiji water–filled fridges are disguised as Marshall amps.

From a jaundiced standpoint, the Verb stands as a highly stylized symbol of an invented Fenway—a stage set, a prop, part of an elaborate marketing plan designed to sell us on an entirely new neighborhood sprung from what has been, for half a century, a wasteland of parking lots, gas stations, and tire stores.

But the Verb and the new Fenway also tell a story about how to amass power in the most elegant of ways. Since acquiring his first Fenway properties more than 14 years ago, Samuels has united the neighborhood’s middle-class residents with top-tier financiers and the city’s notoriously fickle bureaucracy to arrive at a workable vision of what this dump of a place could become.

At the center of the tale is Samuels himself, a quiet multimillionaire who rarely speaks publicly, shuns the spotlight—and has charmed his way into a massive, 18.4-acre kingdom of prime mixed-use property in the heart of the city. No other developer in recent memory has come into Boston quite like this, taking over such a huge landmass in such a short time, utterly transforming a neighborhood so close to downtown into something completely unrecognizable. How Samuels did it involves money, ambition, patience, and, quite frankly, alchemy.

Already, the tent posts of Fenway’s revival are on display. At 180 Brookline Avenue, there’s a million-square-foot development called Fenway Triangle Trilogy housing 405 luxury apartments, restaurants like Tiffani Faison’s barbecue joint Sweet Cheeks, and retail including a West Elm and a Starbucks. Across the street, another Samuels development called Van Ness is under construction: It takes up an entire city block, anchored by an enormous CityTarget. It also has residences and 237,000 square feet of new office space—a six-story slice, four stories up, creates a sliver of landscape that will divide the glassy housing tower from the glassy office tower. Around the corner is his hulking 952,000-square-foot Landmark Center, with a movie theater, restaurants, and more office space. Samuels is installing a Wegmans on the ground floor, à la Chelsea Market, and adding three new 10- to 12-story apartment buildings—500,000 square feet of new build that will overlook a verdant rooftop park.

If someone had pitched this idea 20 years ago, no one would’ve bought it. Back then, the land was broken up into dozens of separate properties owned by entities large and small, from the Red Sox to recent immigrants. Turning around the neighborhood seemed all but impossible. For one thing, the city’s zoning rules prevented anyone from building higher than a few stories. And the Red Sox seemed to like it that way—it guaranteed that nothing would interrupt the sightlines around Fenway Park, which loomed over all, belching out drunken fans into the streets for six months a year. The all-powerful Sox had insulated themselves from their neighbors—Boston University to the north, Northeastern University to the south—with a cocoon of garages and gas stations. Why mess with success?

So Samuels took his time. He watched and waited, slowly synthesizing a story from all the chatter, which he then used to convince everyone that he could birth a neighborhood. He repeated that same story to owner after owner to coax them into letting go of their lucrative Boylston Street addresses. And he scaled the Mt. Everest of municipal bureaucracies to get the neighborhood rezoned to heights that made development worth pursuing.

That’s not, historically, how Boston has done urban development. Too often, change happens contentiously, with neighborhoods battling developers, and the city—in the form of the Boston Redevelopment Authority—serving as referee. Sometimes developers throw the people a bone, giving them parks or conceding a few feet in height, in the hopes that they’ll shut up. Sometimes the neighbors are roundly ignored—especially when the developer’s interests and the city’s are closely aligned. Rare is the developer who has any interest in the long game—one that involves a decade of endless meetings and a rapidly moving bottom line. That’s a game for losers.

Or Steve Samuels, who asked of all, Don’t you want to be part of something big?

And holy hell, is it big: A lot of money is riding on this new Fenway. We’re talking billions—J. P. Morgan money, family money, foreign-investor money, and, through tax breaks, city and state money. But sometimes big bets pay off really big. And I want to get inside the mind of the high-rolling, patient gambler.

 

Real estate makes strange bedfellows, and this is a story about one odd pairing. Steve Samuels needed to buy a gas station, and the owner, George Pagounis, knew it. Though the Texaco station occupied a mere 100 feet along Boylston Street—just another eyesore among eyesores in the Fenway—to Samuels, it was a crown jewel, a holy grail, the final piece of a property puzzle he’d assembled through years of negotiating with owner after property owner. Without the Texaco, he couldn’t build the 550,000-square-foot superblock of offices, apartments, and retail, known as Van Ness, that he’d been planning for years.

The Pagounis family had already met one suitor. “Someone from the Red Sox came over, very obnoxious,” says Stratton Pagounis, George’s fiftysomething son. “He says, ‘Boy, do I have a deal for you. This property’s worthless, it’s a postage stamp. I’ll give you one million dollars. You aren’t going to get more than that from anybody.’” When Stratton went back to his father with the offer, George’s response was two words: “Shoot him.” The Sox guy came around a few more times, “wanted to meet again and again,” Stratton says, “and I said, it’s not for sale. I wouldn’t sell it to you for anything.”


Empire-Building

Between 1999 and 2013, Samuels & Associates bought 18.4 acres in Fenway in more than a dozen transactions.

the fenway map

photograph by pj couture


 


Then Samuels showed up. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Samuels told Stratton. “I need this [property]. You can really bust my balls, but I need you.” He was firm, but dead honest. “Samuels said, ‘I want it. I need it. Give me a price, let’s work it out.’” Samuels’s straightforward approach made him instantly sympathetic. “I trusted him the first day,” Stratton says. (Stratton isn’t exactly the trusting type: Once, while at a dinner meeting with Samuels, Stratton solved the question of who’d pick up the tab by pulling out a .25-caliber Beretta. Needless to say, he prevailed.)

Though Stratton and Samuels hit it off, it took a year of negotiating to reach a deal—and even then, it very nearly fell apart. After shaking hands on a price, Samuels and Stratton found themselves in a conference room at the Pagounis family’s lawyer’s office. They were sitting face to face with Stratton’s father, George. It was like the final round of some kind of obscenely high-stakes poker game, and even though he was surrounded by heaping piles of chips, George looked miserable.

George Pagounis had come from Greece with nothing, had built up his gas station empire and never, ever sold a thing. It was time for one, final epic maneuver. “My father goes, ‘Wait. No,’” Stratton recalls. “We’re all looking at him. He goes, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I want an extra $400,000.’ You shoulda seen Steve’s face drop. He looks at me, and I go, ‘I don’t know.’ Steve goes, ‘Okay, we’re done.’”

Outside the meeting room, George let loose on his son. “I go, ‘Yeah, I think it’s fair,’ and [my dad] goes, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ I thought the deal was more than fair, but we didn’t push him, you know?” Eventually, George Pagounis returned to the table. Now he wanted even more—an extra $600,000. Samuels finally agreed. Even though he’d been taken to the cleaners, he’d done what nobody else could do: He’d gotten a yes from a man who’d sworn never to sell.

Stratton adds, “My dad still says to this day, ‘You know why I don’t like you? You nearly cost me half a million dollars.’”

 

As we chat in the verb courtyard, Samuels tells me that growing up in Cleveland, he dreamed of playing three-chord classic rock ’n’ roll like his heroes, the Michael Stanley Band. Okay, you’ve never heard of them, but they were big in Ohio in the ’70s, he assures me. Samuels spent most of his youth in front of giant speakers, hanging with John Cougar, back before he was John Cougar Mellencamp. “I’d sit at the bar drinking with him until he went on. He had this little, like, hairdo, his leather jacket and his leather collars up like this,” he says. “He was like really such a bad-ass before punk was punk.” I try to picture Samuels as a teen, but I can’t.

Hanging with Cougar, listening to blue-collar rock, Samuels developed an easygoing, guy-on-the-barstool manner that served him well in his family’s lucrative real estate business. His great-uncle Julius Kravitz was the owner of the family company, First National Supermarkets—a group of several supermarket chains and shopping centers—which he’d grown into a billion-dollar consortium, making him, by 1979, one of the richest men in Cleveland. Tragically, that also made him a target. One evening, Kravitz and his wife were abducted from their apartment by two men, one posing as a cop. In the ensuing madness—the abductors drove the couple around town attempting to collect a ransom—Kravitz’s wife leaped from the car and escaped, while Julius was shot several times. He died of his wounds. The murderers were caught, but one of the abductors spent time in a mental hospital and, 14 years later—following a series of controversial court hearings—was eventually released.

After Kravitz’s death, Steve’s father, Robert Samuels, took over the New England real estate division of the company and moved to Connecticut in the early ’80s. He sold the company to a Dutch entity in 1988, but still likes to keep busy. His friends include the Wegmans family and fellow billionaire developer Stephen Karp—the reason Samuels family vacations tend to happen on Nantucket.

Steve graduated from the Ohio State University in 1981 and joined his dad, overseeing acquisitions and managing properties. Robert taught his son that controlling land was more lucrative and less troublesome than running supermarkets, so Steve Samuels pursued real estate development, starting with a Bridgeport, Connecticut, shopping center in 1986. He was 26 years old.

Today, the Samuels family has interests in at least 80 shopping centers around the country. And Steve still has populist tastes: He owns toy trains and a Harley; he recently kicked an Oreo habit, and he likes to destress by hiking in Maine and New Hampshire. He lives in a $7 million, 8,000-square-foot Brookline manse with his wife, Ami Cipolla. The couple, who met at a shopping-center convention in Las Vegas and married in 2002, have three children. “Development is a very comfortable business,” Robert Samuels tells me when I get him on the phone in Connecticut. Then again, what Steve is doing is “much more innovative than what I did,” he says. “I’m kind of amazed at it.”

But right now, as we stand around the Verb’s courtyard, Samuels shifts gears from real estate to moviemaking, which he claims are essentially the same business. His voice has a hoarseness earned from years of storytelling, but he’s not a gesturer—his hands stay down. In his first attempt as a producer, Samuels tells me, he’d bankrolled the 2006 Demi Moore comeback vehicle Half Light, which resulted in a mess of lawsuits, bad weather, cranky movie stars, and a key financier’s fatal heart attack. “So I start to film and everything that could go wrong goes wrong,” Samuels says. “It was so bad, I was personally sick every night…. Instead of doing my real estate business I’m on the phone every day all day. I’m putting film stock on my credit card every night because they don’t have money.”

I suggest that smarter guys would have said, Screw that business, but in very typical Samuels fashion, he insists with an easy smile that the entire ordeal was merely a very expensive “900-level course” on movie producing. “The whole story there is that out of pain, disaster, and screwing up,” he says, “I got a chance to get involved with the right people.” Eventually, it paid off: He produced, among others, In the Valley of Elah, the Paul Haggis film starring Tommy Lee Jones, and the George Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won one. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Clayton would not have been made if not for Samuels, who “bankrolled the project when no studio would put up the money.” Samuels has since cofounded a New York–based movie company, FilmNation Entertainment, which continues to produce indie films while managing international distribution for major motion pictures, which is, frankly, where all the film money is right now.

Just as we start circling in on what it’s like to hang with Clooney, something he really doesn’t want on the record, Samuels artfully changes course. Meanwhile, he’s constantly reading me to make sure I’m engaged. And I am. “Have you heard my rat story?” he asks.

Last February, Samuels bought a vintage 1947 Greyhound-esque luxury bus, the size of a dining car. He found it in one of those classified-ad rags you see at convenience stores, and drove it down from Maine to the site of the Verb, on Boylston Street. The Verb was under construction then, and when Samuels walked off the bus, he encountered a hawk eating its dinner in the middle of the courtyard. “He’s like this big with his wings out and he’s got a rat half-eaten in his mouth,” Samuels says. The hawk tried to fly away and smashed into the glass on the other side of the courtyard. Samuels thought it was dead. “Out of nowhere, the hawk flips over onto his feet, pukes up the rat, looks back at us.” Then, he tells me, he got the hell out of there.

On the face of it, Samuels is merely showing how the hotel—and the neighborhood—were like the Serengeti over here on Boylston. But what he’s really telling me, I think, is: I’m still the same punk-ass kid who loves rock ’n’ roll. It’s all so effortless. Which is why I have to keep reminding myself, as we chat on this lazy, blue-skied morning in the L.A.-style Verb, that although he’s not into chest-thumping and we’re talking movies and rats and vintage buses, Samuels is the clever son of a bitch who slipped this property, and practically the entire Fenway, right out from under everyone’s nose.

 

In the 1950s, the Fenway was booming—with traffic. The city had paved over parts of the Emerald Necklace, creating a tangled nest of asphalt and urban highways. Boylston Street was the major artery serving the Longwood Medical Area to the west, and the Fenway’s two commercial anchors: Fenway Park to the east, and, since 1929, Sears, Roebuck & Company’s massive, 9-acre distribution complex to the west. (Built at the intersection of Park Drive and Brookline Avenue, it’s now the sprawling Landmark Center shopping and office development.) Sears’s army of delivery trucks clogged up Boylston, which was already choked on game days, cleaving the Fenway into a light-industrial north and a primarily residential south.

As Boylston Street became a virtual shrine to all things automobile, a young developer named Robert Sage realized, in 1959, that the only thing the Fenway lacked was a good motel. That year, he built his first project, the Fenway Motor Inn—a completely of-the-moment international-style motel, surrounded by open parking—just a base path away from the south wall of Fenway Park. Sage, the son of legendary New England bookie Harry “Doc” Sagansky—and the sister of Boston’s most storied fashionista, the late Marilyn Riseman—built buzz for the motel by booking rooms for mob-circuit stars like Connie Francis, Jerry Vale, and Tony Bennett. Occasionally, some of those stars would perform at the motel’s VIP lounge—the same one where, Howie Carr wrote in the Herald, Doc Sagansky settled his books every Monday “with a wad of cash that would choke a rhinoceros.”


But by the early 1990s, the Fenway was over. Sears had closed up shop in 1988, leaving an empty, mammoth shell. Four years later, longtime Sox owner Jean Yawkey died, leaving the team to John Harrington—who inherited not only a losing team, but also MLB’s smallest, oldest, and most decrepit ballpark. Boylston Street had become Boston’s armpit—where you got your gas, your greasy fries, and your oil changed. “At one time the best thing you could hope to get on Lansdowne Street was a good beating,” Patrick Lyons, who owned the biggest clubs on Lansdowne, told the Herald in 2009.

In 2000, the Sox went up for sale for the first time in more than 60 years, and to jack up their value, Harrington successfully lobbied Boston—terrified of losing the team to another city—to use its powers of eminent domain to help him buy up 15.5 acres south and west of the existing ballpark, at an estimated price of $65 million, so that he or the new owners could rebuild the park at twice the size. Soon after, the city’s chief planner, Kairos Shen, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority swooped in to massage a master plan with the community and various stakeholders, a process that would take years. If all went as planned, the Sox would be in firm command of the Fenway.

 

The Fenway’s neighborhood organizers needed no introduction to the BRA. They lived in the quiet, tree-lined, five-story-brick-housing pocket along Peterborough and Queensberry streets, and were known as some of Boston’s most active community members—folks like the Fenway Civic Association’s Bill Richardson, Freddie Veikley, and Ed Burke, many of them long-term renters. They’d landed in the Fenway in the ’70s and ’80s, at a time when slumlords sometimes torched their own properties to collect insurance money. They’d seen the neighborhood shift from secretaries and nurses to artists, musicians, and students. They’d witnessed the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s up close. They stuck around because they knew that the Fenway was a rarity in Boston: an affordable residential oasis, a walkable neighborhood, boasting the highest percentage of rentals in the city. So they tolerated Boylston Street’s drunken Sox fans, gas stations, fast-food joints, and band-rehearsal spaces, where—Veikley says—the heavy metal bands practicing at top volume kept the rats away.

But they relentlessly defended their turf. They’d fought for affordable housing and parks and against the incursion of medical-related buildings in their neighborhood. “ Every time they want to do something, they talk to me,” says Burke, who used to work for the city. “Because they know we can screw them. If we can’t cost them money, we can cost them time…. You can mess them around a lot of ways.” They were, one might say, a very engaged and very well-informed group. Exactly the kind of people who could crush a developer’s dreams.

Community buy-in was also crucial for another reason: If Mayor Tom Menino was passionate about anything, it was listening to his neighborhoods. Taking a lesson from the destruction of Boston’s old West End, Menino wrote in his autobiography, “I’d tell developers: Want to build in the neighborhoods? Talk to the neighbors. Convince them that change won’t harm their quality of life.” And everyone knew that the mayor’s support was crucial to getting projects—especially big projects—approved by the BRA.

1960

Then: A vintage postcard of the Fenway Motor Court (noticeably absent: Fenway Park).

illustration courtesy of samuels & associates

illustration courtesy of samuels & associates

2013

Now: A rendering of Samuels’s Verb Hotel, with his 1947 bus parked outside.

illustration courtesy of samuels & associates

illustration courtesy of samuels & associates

The people in the Fenway had demonstrated time and again that they were a force to be reckoned with; in part, that’s what kept developers away. Stephen Karp, owner of a national retail empire and half of Nantucket, told me he saw a “tremendous opportunity” in the Fenway, but claims it wasn’t his kind of business. (Perhaps. Although—as I reminded him—he’d done CambridgeSide Galleria, an enormous urban project if there ever was one.) Golden boy Anthony Pangaro, of Millennium Partners, knew his place, over in Downtown Crossing. Favored son Joe Fallon, backed by MassMutual, stayed in his designated territory, the South Boston waterfront. Second-generation developer John Rosenthal tried to get approval for his air-rights project over the Pike nearby, but the best he could eke out of the Fenway was a new commuter-rail station—built for the MBTA as part of a state-funded infrastructure package. Mega-mogul Norman Levenson owned plenty of residential buildings in the Fenway, but he didn’t go after family-run gas stations or get too involved with master planning.

As the neighborhood people began hammering out the plan with the BRA, two outsiders started showing up to meetings: Steve Samuels, or, in his stead, his executive vice president of development, Peter Sougarides. Samuels had been negotiating for a sizable piece of property between Boylston and Brookline on both sides of Kilmarnock. He thought he’d build an office building or a hotel, and a supermarket, opposite an existing Shaw’s. Perhaps the plan wasn’t sexy, perhaps it was even redundant, but it did play to Samuels’s strengths as a shopping-center guy.

Samuels and Sougarides were quiet, didn’t say much; they’d sit in the back, and when asked, respectfully offered the developer’s perspective on all kinds of things the community was thinking about. In fact, Samuels brought in a heavy dose of reality. Richardson says, “It didn’t take much for Steve to look at [our plans] realistically and say, ‘Here’s your choice: nothing or 250 feet. Because, look, it’s $250 per square foot to build in Boston—union, steel—you are not going to get someone who’s gonna build that low. Either gas stations or 15 floors of development. What do you want?’ Most were willing to take more height in an effort to make things happen out there, to get away from this barren strip of land that ran through the heart of Boston.”

And Samuels didn’t just listen to the neighborhood; when his time came, he delivered. In the four years it took him to acquire the land to build Trilogy—between 1999 and 2003—he shifted his plans from a hotel and supermarket to apartments, largely as a result of the neighborhood meetings. And—at huge added expense—he buried the development’s parking lot. But it was worth it: He’d gained the neighborhood’s trust while encouraging them to dream bigger and better.

Though Samuels had been an unknown among the Fenway folks, he was very well known by Menino. In 1993, the same year Menino took office, Samuels opened the $65 million South Bay Center—“the first supermarket-anchored shopping center in a big Northeast city in a generation,” the Globe declared in 2005. The new mayor quickly warmed up to the young midwestern interloper who was willing to gamble on Dorchester.

At the mayor’s bidding, Samuels then oversaw—pro bono, no less—the development of the $13.5 million Mecca at Grove Hall, a smaller retail center in Roxbury, a place where no other developer dared to tread without imposing hefty fees. In his memoir, Mayor for a New America, Menino didn’t mention Samuels by name. But he made it clear that bringing new development to an underdeveloped part of the city was personal: The construction of Grove Hall mall, he says, fulfilled his “promise to Roxbury.”

It wasn’t the last time Samuels would end up on Menino’s good side. In 2006, Samuels bailed out Nuestra Culinary Ventures—an ailing nonprofit kitchen incubator in Jamaica Plain that Menino strongly endorsed—with a $25,000 gift. And after completing Trilogy, for his second massive Fenway project Samuels leveraged the friendship of another powerful City Hall ally: Harry Collings, Menino’s close friend and former long-serving executive director of the BRA. Collings was the hidden hand who got big real estate deals done. He heard about Samuels through the BRA project managers who’d shepherded the master planning of the Fenway. And Collings had a specific problem that Samuels could solve: As a member of the board and head of the capital campaign for what was then Fenway Community Health (FCH), Collings wanted Samuels to help the organization find a new space.

Eventually, FCH became a major tenant in Samuels’s 1330 Boylston project. Stephen Boswell, president and CEO of Fenway Health, says he understands why Samuels got the gig: “The general sense I got of conversations with the mayor, with Harry, with other people at the BRA, was that Steve was definitely someone who would come into a neighborhood and not offend virtually half of the people in the neighborhood and blow something up.”

Samuels and his employees also gave generously to Menino’s campaigns—$7,000 in 2009—and threw swanky fundraisers for the mayor. Meanwhile, other developers’ checks were being returned, among them Rosenthal’s. By way of explanation, the Globe announced that Rosenthal’s support for Menino’s campaign “may violate the mayor’s longstanding policy of not accepting donations from people with business before a city agency.” His air-rights proposal, which had cost him a decade and millions of dollars, went nowhere for years (he may get it done yet). Mentioning his name to other developers tends to provoke a slow shaking of heads.

 

One rainy day in October, I went to Fenway Park to meet with Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino to talk about the organization’s take on the development of the neighborhood in general, and Samuels in particular. Samuels had warned me that Lucchino would probably call him “an asshole.” But Lucchino didn’t. Instead, he walked us past the Sox’s main conference room, with a glorious view of the ball field, and pointed to the inscription on the wall, by Globe sportswriter Marty Nolan. “The ballpark is the star,” it read. Lucchino would’ve written it right into my notebook if he’d had the chance: The ballpark is the star.

In a smaller conference room a few feet away, Lucchino had assembled some of the Red Sox’s top brass: senior vice president/Fenway affairs Larry Cancro, vice chairman David Ginsberg, and senior vice president/special counsel David Friedman. The ballpark, Lucchino emphasized, was the center of every decision the ownership group had made since buying the team—and the Red Sox were not now, nor had ever wanted to be, real estate developers. But that didn’t mean that the Sox hadn’t taken an active—often defensive—role in Fenway development. As we sat tightly packed around a large wooden table a few stories above Yawkey Way, Lucchino explained how harmful too-close development could be to the “jewel of Fenway.” Imagine this cell phone is Fenway Park, he said, positioning an iPhone in the middle of the table. Then he reached across the table for an Evian. This—the water bottle, he said—is a potential development. He smashed it up against the phone. And this—he commandeered someone’s can of soda and crowded it in—is development. Someone offered another water bottle and before we knew it, the lowly phone had disappeared behind, well, a towering wall of trash. Lucchino refers to it as “Manhattanization”—a term he attributes to Menino. No, we don’t want this happening to Fenway Park, Lucchino said, as we all nodded gravely.

Of course, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when the Sox’s previous ownership was battling Samuels and the neighborhood for the fate of the Fenway—it wasn’t clear what role the team would ultimately play. As time went on, the Harrington-owned Sox began to realize that buying up the 15.5 acres to build a huge new ballpark would cost them a crap-ton of money. When the team came sniffing around for the then-dilapidated hotel—which had been converted to a Howard Johnson— Sage claimed that he was just about to build something really big on that site, which would significantly crank up the cost of a buyout. Sage’s new “plans” for a larger hotel instantly hit all the papers, making his deal appear as if it were just a handshake away.

The estimated price of buying up the 15.5 acres for a new ballpark shot up to at least $180 million. Harrington gave up, and sold the Sox to billionaire John Henry’s group in 2002. Two years later, the BRA finally unveiled its new Fenway zoning, based on the master plan they’d developed with the neighborhood. In a radical departure, it allowed incredible density and height—up to 29 stories at the corner where Brookline and Boylston intersect.

Other developers drooled over Fenway’s possibilities, but hung back, waiting for the Sox to make the first move. The team’s maddening indecision dragged on for years.

Instead, following their preserve-and- protect credo, the Sox lobbied the BRA in 2008 for an actual city-sanctioned Fenway protection district—which would’ve limited the kinds of developments that could, say, block the outfield view of the Citgo sign. Lucchino says, and the BRA’s Kairos Shen confirms, that they never came up with language that satisfied all parties. Instead, the Sox tried to buy their way into safety by making overtures to nearly every property owner around them.

It was this defensive strategy that brought the Sox head to head in a bidding war with Samuels over an ExxonMobil gas station that sat on a corner diagonal from Fenway. Today, both parties take pains to emphasize they’re on good terms. Still, Lucchino recalled, under his breath, that he thought the team had a deal to buy the place first—until he found out Samuels had somehow bested his offer. Cancro, his Fenway affairs guru, chimed in to say that there may have been a misunderstanding and lack of communication over the course of a holiday weekend. But Shen says that there was enough tension over Fenway real estate that at one point, Menino encouraged Samuels and John Henry to talk. Samuels worked his magic, and the two became friends.

 

Bob Sage eventually sold his crumbling Howard Johnson motel to the developer son of a mega-developer. But it wasn’t Steve Samuels.

One day in 2008, Samuels got a phone call from Adam Weiner informing him that Weiner Ventures now controlled the Sage property. Like Samuels, Weiner has real estate development in his blood. With his father, Steve, he’d built Weiner Ventures into a massive portfolio of shopping centers and investments such as the Mandarin Oriental and the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. Unlike Samuels, Weiner was new to the Fenway. I ask Samuels what went through his head when he found out that the Weiners got the HoJo. “That son of a bitch stole that property right out from under us,” he answers with a wink.

They could’ve become instant rivals— instead, they became partners. Samuels invited Weiner to invest in his Fenway projects and become part of the development team, and shortly thereafter, Weiner entrusted the HoJo property to Samuels, who turned it into the hipster Verb Hotel.

It was a very Samuels way of doing business—a collaborative and creative solution that bolstered both parties. Some have suggested that all along, Weiner’s father, Steve, wanted his son to apprentice with Samuels. Adam had apprenticed with Suffolk Construction’s John Fish. If he was to take over the Weiner fortune, he needed to learn the ropes from a pro, and the senior Weiner apparently had designated Samuels the pro. Not long ago, I met Adam Weiner for drinks and asked him about the Samuels deal. “I just had this gut feeling that this was going to work,” he said. Sipping his Stella at the Bristol Lounge in the Four Seasons, Weiner gushed over Samuels, ever so slightly: “He really is an amazingly honest guy.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone talk about Samuels this way. Former Boston Phoenix publisher Steve Mindich—who sold his Brookline Avenue buildings to Samuels—is a lifelong hard case, and even he goes soft when he talks about Samuels: “He was just really nice. Quiet. Just the antithesis of everything you seem to think real estate people are—and, in many cases, actually are.” Fenway neighborhood defender Richardson echoes this sentiment: “He did have a vision…a real sense about what the neighborhood could be, and we had that sense, too, and looking for someone to team up. Other people aren’t like that.” Fenway Health’s Boswell agrees: “Steve was very engaged in the charrette, with people, and helping to bring a developer’s perspective, and getting to know people. And no other developer—it always shocks me—interacted with the community the way [Samuels’s team] did.”

Stratton Pagounis, the gas-station negotiator, offers a more colorful take: “You know how people who have money like to stick together, go to the country club or something? Samuels is a regular kind of Joe, that’s my opinion of him. He acts like he’s your brother.” And he shares this one final bit: “When they cut the ribbon for over here [at the 1330 Boylston Street project], my mom’s like, oh my God, she’s never seen Mr. Menino like that—hugging [Samuels] and just in tears. Menino loved him like his own son. I wish Mr. Menino was alive, he’d have told you the same thing.”

 

This past August, I met Samuels and his company president, Joel Skar, on the 16th floor of Trilogy, in a conference room with a broad view of the city. As we gazed through floor-to-ceiling windows at Van Ness—Samuels’s massive, mixed-use development under construction across the street—I was briefly transfixed by welders’ sparks, cranes, and men at work. Between us stood a coffee-table-size model of Samuels’s plans for the entire Fenway neighborhood. Samuels and Sklar leaned over the model, gesturing at the small cardboard boxes wrapped in paper façades, indicating buildings that were either completed, under construction, or slated for the future.

As we looked back and forth at these two versions of the Fenway—the imagined one, in model form, on the table, and the real one just outside the windows—Samuels and Sklar gave me their rap about filling “the hole in the doughnut” (their metaphor for the Fenway as an empty gap between the hospitals and the Back Bay) and how Van Ness Street could someday be a continuation of Newbury Street. Though they’d no doubt talked about these ideas dozens of times, they spoke to me about their plans as if they’d just come up with them. Look—a private park six stories up. Restaurants! Shopping! Pedestrian walkways! Full-color renderings of a possible future Fenway are propped up at the ready. Look at all the fashionable people who will flock to Boston’s newest urban village, the Fenway!

A few weeks later, when I sat in that same space with their impossibly engaging architect, David Manfredi—who pulled a Dale Carnegie, deftly peppering me with questions about myself —I pointed out that Van Ness, that glorious new Newbury Street to the west, will be about two blocks long, and will be cast in perpetual shade. Yes, he nodded. Not to mention that the anchor retail tenant in Van Ness will be a Target. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, I’m wondering whether maybe the Samuels script, as written, needs a few semantic tweaks. The sheer size of the project—it’s several blocks long and an entire block deep—seems strangely incompatible with a village. A neat toolbox of early-21st-century architectural maneuvers, the building has a daunting curved prow reminiscent of a cruise ship, and three enormous punched windows marking the band of Target that occupies floors two, three, and four. The entire construction isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. It is, however, far better than what came before.

The last time I saw Samuels, he and his team met me at Capital Grille, where I’d pressed him hard on the Sage deal, among other things. I’d asked him if his decision to keep the Verb Hotel low to the ground wasn’t just a savvy move to appease the Sox. He insisted it wasn’t: “It would make sense if we were that Machiavellian,” he said. But clearly, he was bothered by the thought that the person writing about him didn’t yet understand him, so he offered me a ride home.

I braced myself for an earful. But instead, Samuels did what Samuels does: He turned on the charm. It’s in his DNA to turn competitors into partners, skeptics into believers. While his car idled outside my apartment, he talked and he listened. For a couple of hours, we talked and found all sorts of common ground. He didn’t mention the story; he seemed to believe that once we got to know each other, I’d be fair. He’d trust me and we’d have a deal.

When he arrived in the Fenway 20 years ago, Samuels was barely out of his twenties. He was smarter than most, richer than most, and more patient than most. Now, at 55, he sees himself as a game-changer. “Boston’s going to be a little more open-minded,” he’d told me back at the Verb. “There’s a feeling that the city’s going to be different than it’s been for 20 years.” He talks about the evolution of the city, from the days of Ted Kennedy and Whitey Bulger to the Menino years, when “a conservative politician ran the city for years and years and years as a really tightly controlled place.” His candid take on one of his biggest supporters surprises me.

Could the Fenway be a model for development to come? Already, Samuels is laying down track in Allston, and with Weiner, he’s angling to be the first developer to build over the Mass. Pike in more than a generation—over by Boylston and Mass. Ave. “So here’s the thing,” Samuels says, summing up his ambition, “this is about Boston’s future. Whatever Boston culture is going to become is being set now. We can start looking at ourselves more liberally and smile a little bit, and have a little fun.”

 


This Land Is My Land

The fight over the Fenway wasn’t always pretty, but it came with a great cast of characters.


 


Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/property/2014/11/25/steven-samuels-real-estate-fenway-boston/