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47-story Copley Place condo and retail tower put on hold

Construction of a 47-story condominium and retail tower at Copley Place is on hold indefinitely, with the developer reevaluating plans for what would be one of the city’s tallest residential buildings.

Simon Property Group, of Indianapolis, said it hopes to provide a detailed plan for moving forward by next spring, but a spokesman declined to specify a time frame for construction of the 318-unit skyscraper.

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“We’re studying the development and getting closer to revealing more specific plans, but it would be premature to do that now,” said the spokesman, Les Morris.

The timing of the delay is unusual, given the improved market conditions for commercial construction and surging demand for luxury condominiums. Frustrated neighbors and some local officials said Simon Property is failing to explain the hold-up.

“There’s a lot of concern about a developer who comes in with big plans and then nothing happens,” said Democratic state Representative Byron Rushing, whose district includes the project site.

Another state representative, Back Bay Democrat Martha Walz, noted that the property Simon wants to build on is owned by the state government and sits at the key intersection of Boston’s South End and Back Bay neighborhoods. “This is public property, and we are not getting any information about when and if this project will move forward,” Walz said.

The government agency in charge of the property, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said it has not heard from Simon in six months. The project is complex because it would be built on state-owned air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike, which requires additional review to verify the existing decking could support the tower.

“We’re waiting for Simon to go through the process,” said Cyndi Roy, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Department. “We haven’t heard from them.”

The Boston Redevelopment Authority approved construction of the $500 million tower last November. The project would renovate and expand the existing Neiman Marcus store and build a skyscraper designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects above it, adding nearly 800,000 square feet to the Copley Place complex. It would also add a public winter garden and upgrade the entrance to Southwest Corridor Park.

Copley Place currently has 100 apartments, the Westin and Marriott hotels, four office buildings, a shopping mall, and a 1,400-space parking garage. The complex is under long-term lease to Simon.

A BRA spokeswoman said the agency’s director, Peter Meade recently reached out to the developer and received assurances the company is trying to advance the project. “The BRA has touched base with Simon about the status of their project,” spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said in a statement. “They are committed to redeveloping the site and working with the CAC, the neighborhood, and the BRA in early 2013 to move their plans ­forward.”

Simon’s skyscraper divided the community during a lengthy public review last year. Supporters said the project would result in a striking building, new and upgraded civic spaces, additional tax revenue, and hundreds of construction jobs.

Opponents argued the skyscraper would overshadow historic Copley Square and said the developer did not include enough affordable housing units. Simon met the city’s minimum requirement of designating 15 percent of its units affordable, but did not accede to requests to increase it to 25 percent.

The project ultimately gained city approval at what seemed an opportune moment. The condominium market was beginning to show signs of improvement, with low vacancy and rising demand causing prices to rise. Now a number of other major residential projects around the city are rapidly getting underway, taking advantage of a condo market in Boston where sales were up more than 25 percent in the third quarter, according to LINK, a real estate data company.

Simon declined to say whether its inability to proceed is due to design or financial problems, or both. It refused to say whether it intends to significantly change the project.

“We’re fully committed to a residential option at Copley and looking forward to continuing our work with the City of Boston and all public groups,” said Morris, the spokesman.

Rushing urged the state and city to be more aggressive with Simon. He questioned whether the Transportation Department should have extended the developer’s lease last year without stronger assurances it would move forward with construction. Officials agreed to extend the lease by more than 40 years as Simon was seeking approvals for the tower.

Roy, the transportation spokeswoman, said the state will benefit from the new lease whether Simon builds its tower or not.

She said the state received $1 million at the signing of the lease, and for each year of the extension will receive higher rent payments, based on the future value of the entire Copley Place property.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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