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Sep 21, 2017

Thomas N. O’Brien

O Brien header

Job title and company: Founding Partner, Managing Director, The HYM Investment Group
Degrees: BA—Brown University; JD—Suffolk University
Professional interests: The development of large, complicated, mixed-use urban real estate projects; transit-oriented developments; and sustainable development.

What are you working on now?
Today, The HYM Investment Group (HYM) [] has more than 9 million square feet of real estate under development. One of our latest projects is Bulfinch Crossing [], the redevelopment of the Government Center Garage into a six-building 2.9-million-square-foot mixed-used development, one of the largest mixed-use projects ever permitted in the City of Boston. We just finished the first phase of construction, the enabling and re-ramping of the garage, which sets the garage up for the its future 60% reduction and allows for six new buildings to be constructed on the site. Currently, we are in the process of deconstructing the southwest corner of the garage which will become the site pad of the first 480 foot tall residential tower at Bulfinch Crossing, slated to deliver in 2020.

Earlier this year we closed on the purchase of Suffolk Downs, a 161-acre underutilized former thoroughbred racing complex located on the MBTA’s Blue Line. HYM’s vision involves transforming the land into a highly-resilient, mixed-use, transit-oriented jobs center with neighborhood retail, housing, and open space.

With John Hancock Real Estate and New Balance Development Group, we also recently celebrated the topping off of The Residences at Boston Landing, a 19-story 295-unit luxury residential tower, which is scheduled to open next summer. It’s a truly transformational project that will give residents direct access to downtown via a new MBTA commuter rail station, not to mention spectacular views, common amenities and street front retail.

Image: Aerial view of Bulfinch Crossing, a six-building, 2.9-million-square-foot mixed-use development project currently underway. Rendering by Neoscape, courtesy of HYM.

How do (or how did you) you explain to your mom what you do for a living?
I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s during a period of urban renewal in Boston, and my mother was fascinated by the process. She was an avid follower of Boston politics and development when she was younger. She may not completely understand every aspect of what I do, but she definitely understands the impact we have and loves following the building, planning, permitting, and politics of the city.

What inspired you today?
The people who inspire me most are my wife and kids - they are my daily inspiration. My wife is passionate about how we care for and help people around us. She is constantly showing me how to put kindness into action. Each of my kids brings a sense of joy and discovery to our daily lives.

I also love that we get to do work that truly changes parts of the city. I grew up in Greater Boston, have raised my family here, and have served the city in both public and private roles—I’m committed to helping our city remain world class and evolve accordingly. The idea that we’re demolishing a portion of the Government Center Garage and repurposing it to become a nexus of neighborhoods rather than a physical division is really interesting to me.

When you’re working, do you discuss or exchange ideas with your colleagues?
Absolutely, this is the hallmark of who we are as a company. The success of HYM starts with its team-oriented culture. My partners Doug Manz, and Paul Crisalli, and me started the company, and the three of us serve complementary roles with another. We are constantly communicating throughout the day, and we are genuine friends who enjoy each other’s company. We do not do something of consequence without talking and thinking it through with each other. We have confidence that we work better as a team than on our own and this has become a priority throughout the company.

Image: When complete, Bulfinch Crossing will feature One Congress, a 43-story, 1 million-square-foot office tower designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and CBT Architects. Rendering by Neoscape, courtesy of HYM.

What are you reading?
Typically, I have a couple things going at once. Right now I’m just finishing “Between the World and Me” by Ta-’Nehisi Coates. It’s a relatively short read but it’s a great one. Our youngest child is Ethiopian, and that book offers really important context for what’s going on in the world right now.

I’ve also been reading a book that describes the specific colonial history of Barnstable - my family and I have been spending time there on Cape Cod. The book goes through the time from when the Pilgrims first arrived through WWII, looking at families, farmers and leadership.

I always like to have something close by to read about Teddy Roosevelt or Winston Churchill. Last weekend I started to reread a favorite, “Alone.” It is the second book of a trilogy called “The Last Lion,” which is the biography of Winston Churchill. It covers years 1932-1940, when he was considered an outcast politically.

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?
It depends on when you ask that of yourself. My son Tomás is now 18, but when he was 8 years old he looked at me and said, “Hey Dad, did you grow up to be exactly what you wanted to be when you were my age?” I said “Yeah, when I was 8 years old I wanted to be a commercial real estate developer,” and he just said “Okay.” I laughed and then said “No, no, when I was 8, I wanted to play for the Red Sox.”

If you’d asked me when I was just out of college if I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I’m not sure I would have said yes. I think I would’ve said that I would be somewhere at the intersection of finance, government and politics. When I first started off, I was the kind of person who expected I’d work for some big company and climb the ladder. I don’t think I expected I’d own a company and that we’d achieve a measure of success. It’s an honor to get to work on projects like Suffolk Downs and Bulfinch Crossing, for example. I’ve known the garage since my earliest memories so to be able to demolish it and build a new development is pretty amazing. To be from this city and to have a hand in shaping its future is humbling.

Can design save the world?
I don’t know if it can save the world, but it can certainly help manage significant issues facing the world. The field of architecture is at the forefront of trying to find solutions for some of the global issues that we face, like climate change and sea-level rise. Architects will continue to have a large role in thinking about how these issues affect our cities.

In Boston, transit will continue to be a major issue that design can offer solutions around. Focusing on improvements to the current system as well as how to expand the transit system are essential to the future of the city and our economic success as our city grows.

Image: The view from Bulfinch Crossing's 45-story residential tower, the first phase of the six-building development. Rendering by CBT Architects, courtesy of HYM.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?
On all of our projects, from NorthPoint and Suffolk Downs to Boston Landing and Bulfinch Crossing, we’re working to try and improve key aspects of Boston, Cambridge, Revere, Somerville, and the metropolitan suburbs. We’re taking parts of the city that are today underutilized, have environmental issues, or have become functionally obsolete and are creating something that hopefully works better. We want to offer more opportunities to live and work, create places where people can find jobs that work for them, and have interesting places and things to do around the city.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?
My wife, Patricia. She is incredibly well-organized and a wonderful partner who always provides great advice. Patricia is the person who successfully got me to slow down, focus, and put myself in a position where we could build the company that we’ve built.

Your least favorite college class?
I actually loved college, but I’m not really a calculus/trigonometry person.

If you could give the you-of-10-years-ago advice, what would it be?
In 2007, the world was in a recession and the real estate business was in terrible shape. The advice I’d give myself is, “You have to believe the world is going to generally improve and do better. Boston as a city is going to be in the midst of the improving economy of the world, so therefore focus on a few projects, don’t worry about raising the money right away, and see if you can secure the parameters in which you can control the project. Then go secure the money.” This is really what we did.

Something I’d tell myself of 10 years ago is to continue working harder when faced with adversity. Instead of waking up at 5 in the morning, wake up at 4am. All you can do is focus on your list of tasks and get through it. When you’re in any sort of crisis, being a good person and having strong relationships is the key to success. Working hard and trying to be a person who does the right thing can help you ride through those storms.

Your favorite Boston-area structure?
I love the interior courtyard of the Boston Public Library and the Boston Athenaeum at the top of Beacon Hill.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?
Wake up, work hard and be a nice person.