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City Council head using casino plan as leverage

He wants progress at Filene’s site

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

The demolition of the former Filene’s site left a hole in Downtown Crossing. Vornado halted construction of a $700 million tower after it lost financing in the global economic downturn.

The Boston City Council president delivered an ultimatum this week to the owners of Suffolk Downs: No proposal for a casino will advance while a hole remains in Downtown Crossing, where one of the racetrack’s investors has allowed a development to languish.

Council President Stephen J. Murphy contends that the state’s new gambling law requires the City Council and the mayor to schedule a referendum to approve any gambling resort in Boston. The aim, Murphy said, is to use a casino as leverage to kick-start work on the former Filene’s site, which has been left dormant by developer Steven Roth, and his company, Vornado Realty Trust, which also owns 20 percent of Suffolk Downs.

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“Nothing is going to happen until we hear from Roth and Vornado,’’ Murphy said yesterday in an interview. “We can’t have a guy blow us off for 3 1/2 years and then expect to come in and line his pockets 4 miles away across town.’’

For nearly two years, Mayor Thomas M. Menino has made similar threats, using the promise of a Suffolk Downs casino to hammer the New York developer. But yesterday, the Menino administration disputed Murphy’s interpretation of the law, arguing that the council had little real sway in determining the fate of a casino in East Boston.

For the council, a body perennially overshadowed by a five-term mayor with sweeping power, Murphy’s ultimatum served as an unusually forceful assertion of power. But it also highlighted the complexities of the 48,000-word law that legalized casino gambling in Massachusetts and underscored the high stakes as local officials seek to maximize leverage and reap potential jackpots for their communities.

Murphy met in his City Hall office this week with two principals from the racetrack and made what he described as a nonnegotiable demand. Murphy said he told the men - Richard Fields, Suffolk Downs’s principal owner, and Chip Tuttle, the racetrack’s chief operating officer - that he would do nothing to advance a casino proposal until there is progress at the hole in Downtown Crossing.

Murphy said he did not want to micromanage the development process and set no specific requirement, such as construction crews returning to the site, but he wanted to see tangible progress.

“I think [Roth and Vornado] need to come out and say, ‘Look. We hear you. We’re making a commitment to bring that place to life,’ ’’ Murphy said yesterday. “ ‘We understand we’ve been negligent and we’re going to move forward.’ I think something like that would go a long way.’’

The Menino administration discounted the significance of Murphy’s hard line with the ownership at Suffolk Downs.

“Truthfully, I don’t think it has any impact,’’ said Peter Meade, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “Singing, dancing, yelling, screaming - nothing can make this more important than the mayor has made this already.’’

Vornado demolished half a city block at the old Filene’s site to make way for a $700 million tower with offices, residences, retail stores, and a hotel.

But the company halted construction in 2008 after it lost financing in the global economic meltdown. The site has sat vacant since, leaving a crater in the middle of one of Boston’s major shopping districts.

The ownership at Suffolk Downs yesterday described Vornado as “a small minority investor in Suffolk Downs . . . with no active role in the management of the facility.’’

“We are aware of its other real estate holdings in the Boston area, understand and appreciate the concerns raised about those projects, and understand that Vornado is working to resolve these in a timely fashion,’’ said William Mulrow, chairman of the board at Suffolk Downs, in an e-mailed statement.

Roth did not return a phone message to his office seeking comment.

Menino has repeatedly chastised the developer, revoked the company’s building permits, and threatened to take the site by eminent domain.

When Meade was tapped to head the redevelopment authority last May, Menino made it clear that the project was the top priority.

“The mayor and I talk about this, very honestly, 15 times a week,’’ Meade said, adding that he also has frequent conversations with Vornado. “I’ve only talked to them twice today, but the day’s not half over.’’

Despite the active negotiations, Meade acknowledged that a deal is “not done yet.’’

Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, dismissed Murphy’s posturing as nothing more than a political power grab.

“The economic redevelopment of Downtown Crossing and jobs for our residents is too important of an issue to get caught up in petty politics,’’ Joyce said. “We will continue moving forward on these issues in the best interest of the city of Boston.’’

Murphy countered that the dormant construction site was draining the remaining vitality from Downtown Crossing.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Murphy said he wants to increase pressure on Vornado.

Some of Murphy’s colleagues seemed open to exploiting any available tool to push for a deal.

“I think the Filene’s site, as it is, has been harmful to our downtown shopping district,’’ City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo said. “If the council can do something to spur development there, I would support it.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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