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Future Perfect: South Of Boston, GE Is Helping Build The City Of Tomorrow

Rita Koselka
December 11, 2017
During World War II, the Weymouth Naval Aviation Station, just 10 miles south of Boston, was home base for 12 military blimps that protected the New England coastline by keeping watch for German U-boats.
But for the past 20 years, the 1,500-acre piece of land — which spreads over two counties and three townships — has sat vacant because of arguments about conflicting zoning rules and the challenges of dealing with multiple South Shore municipalities.

But over the next 15 years, the site, now known as Union Point, is set to transform. Developer LStar Ventures is building a sustainable city that will include 10 million square feet of commercial space, 4,000 residential units, rooftop gardens and branches of some of the prestigious local universities. Interspersed throughout will be plazas and green spaces as well as housing for the elderly and people with disabilities. All of the buildings will feature smart technology and be LEED-certified, and the community will run completely on renewable energy by 2050.

The site’s developers are hoping to attract not only Boston’s young professional class but also major employers, including Amazon. A key part of their bid to become home to the tech giant’s second headquarters: The city will be a testing ground for experimental technology that could make Union Point a model for new developments going forward.

Above and top: This 1,500-acre swath of land outside Boston, which was once home to the Weymouth Naval Aviation Station, has sat vacant for 20 years, but that's about to change. The site will become a sustainable "smart" city, complete with data-collecting streetlights, rooftop gardens and LEED-certified buildings. Plans call for the community to run entirely on renewable energy by 2050. Images credit: LStar Ventures.

For example, starting next year, GE will install smart streetlights complete with sensors that can track sound, light and other environmental conditions. City planners will be able to analyze that data using apps running on Predix, GE’s cloud-based platform for the industrial internet. A similar system already is up and running in San Diego, where the city is using the information to help people find parking spaces.

Operators at Union Point might decide to use the data for other purposes, such as helping people avoid congested areas or timing traffic lights to cut down on traffic.

LStar, which specializes in turning around distressed properties, initially expected to build a fairly standard suburban residential district on the site. But knowing the area and realizing what an unprecedented opportunity a site this large with access to public transportation was, Corkum told the local officials who had to approve the deal that he wanted to do more.

“I told them,” Corkum explains. “ ‘Give me three months to brainstorm and build a coalition for something more ambitious.’ ” He spoke to local businesspeople, environmentalists and civic leaders about want they wanted. Local authorities quickly approved the sweeping plan that came out of these sessions — to build a smart, sustainable city that meshed commercial, educational, cultural and recreational elements.

To execute on the plan, Corkum went to the best Boston had to offer, including architecture firm Elkus Manfredi (known for New York’s Hudson Yards) and Sasaki Associates, founded by Hideo Sasaki, a former chairman with the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Corkum met with local universities, including MIT’s Media Lab, to discuss using the site as a testing ground for new technologies.

He also approached GE, which moved its headquarters to Boston in 2016, about helping not only with Union Point’s technological infrastructure but also with LStar’s bold vision for powering Union Point with renewable energy.

“This is what we do,” says Eliot Assimakopoulus, business leader for government solutions at GE Grid Solutions. His team is working with LStar on a master energy plan that will take into account all current sources of energy, forecast Union Point’s growing needs and map out how to meet those needs most efficiently, paving the way for renewables.

Corkum says that while all of this new technology is exciting, it’s important that it serves the people who will be living and working at Union Point.

“Union Point is striving to be a real community with homes, offices, retail and restaurants,” says Corkum. “But it’s also going to be a living laboratory.”