Business

Shirley Leung

Developer has faith in the friars — and in a high-rise

HYM Investment seeks to move St. Anthony’s Shrine to a city-owned garage (at center).
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
HYM Investment seeks to move St. Anthony’s Shrine to a city-owned garage (at center).

Tom O’Brien must be a man of faith to try yet again to build a new home for the friars who run St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston.

The first effort was more than a decade ago, when he was still with the New York real estate giant Tishman Speyer. The Franciscans agreed to have Tishman build a tower over their church on Arch Street, but that never happened because the company couldn’t buy nearby parcels to knit together a big enough development site.

Now O’Brien is back with his own firm, HYM Investment Group, trying another deal with the habit-wearing friars of Holy Name Province. The developer’s latest offer is one of eight proposals filed last week with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to redevelop the city-owned Winthrop Square garage.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Tom O'Brien.
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O’Brien’s $675 million project stands out for its uniqueness. He’s proposing to move the Catholic order across the street and build it a new 500-seat church and friary on the garage site. He would also put up a public school and a park.

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In exchange, HYM would build a 780-foot residential building — nearly as tall as the Hancock Tower — on St. Anthony’s property.

To hear O’Brien explain the project, you can’t tell if it’s the devout Catholic or the savvy developer speaking.

“This shrine has a ministry that is in line with the teachings of Jesus, taking care of the poor and caring for people who society perhaps has forgotten,” said O’Brien, a former Boston Redevelopment Authority director under Mayor Tom Menino. “The idea that the ministry and church could be anchored in the downtown for decades to come and contribute really interesting civic space — which is today a difficult parcel — is why I keep coming back.”

O’Brien is willing to spend $85 million to give the friars new digs. But don’t mistake this for charity. Their relocation across the street solves a big problem for O’Brien. The Winthrop garage is oddly shaped and stuck between two buildings, making it a hard place to put a skyscraper. A competitor in the garage sweepstakes, Steve Belkin, owns one of those adjacent buildings, giving him an advantage. But St. Anthony sits on a more conventional site to build a tower.

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The church, which has been at 100 Arch St. for more than 60 years and sometimes is known as the Workers’ Chapel, is a downtown institution, a sanctuary between the Financial District and Downtown Crossing. It’s the place where the homeless grab a meal, shoppers slip in for confession, and office workers line up for Ash Wednesday rites. It’s where politicians, from Menino to Joe Moakley to Marty Walsh, like to pray.

Years ago, the friars began exploring the idea of expanding their counseling programs by raising money through a real estate deal. The original idea of an office tower over the existing church came with complications, such as finding a temporary location for the friars and their ministries during construction.

On this latest attempt, O’Brien approached the Franciscans. But after all this time, are they still interested?

To find out, I headed straight to St. Anthony Shrine on Tuesday to meet the Rev. Thomas Conway, who runs the place.

“We are interested, but not committed,” Conway said. “The powers that be haven’t sat down and looked at the proposal.”

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I don’t think he was talking about God, but I got the impression the friars and their lawyers are just beginning to run the numbers on this. Conway said the shrine is not falling apart, and the 29 friars have plenty of room, even after selling another residential building across the street a few years ago.

No matter what, the order wants to stay downtown.

Still, Conway called the opportunity “intriguing. We don’t want to dismiss it out of hand.”

The process involves HYM first winning rights to redevelop the city garage. Then O’Brien and the friars would do a land swap. But since the garage parcel is bigger than the St. Anthony’s site, HYM is proposing to build a public school for 300 to 350 students on the remaining slice.

With more families moving into the city, O’Brien calculated Boston could use a new downtown school. Boston Public Schools is in the midst of assessing whether it needs to build new ones, but there is demand for more seats in downtown neighborhoods.

Perhaps what’s keeping the friars at the table is that O’Brien is proposing to build the new church first.

“They won’t miss a day of providing Mass,” O’Brien said.

When compared to other bidders, O’Brien acknowledges his proposal might not generate the most tax revenues for the city. But that’s a gamble he’s willing to take.

“It can’t be just about money. It can’t just honestly be about building another building,” O’Brien said. “It should be about the fact the downtown has become a very different place.”

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.