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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Paul McMorrow

Wanted: A hotel near the convention center

In two weeks, Boston officials will converge on a South Boston parking lot. They will clutch shiny commemorative shovels and hurl superlatives at the Cambridge Innovation Center, a technology incubator that will be breaking ground on a Boston outpost. They will name-check Vertex, the pharmaceutical giant now building a new headquarters across the street at Fan Pier, as well as the nearby convention center, and the scores of technology firms that are filling the old brick warehouses nearby.

But it’s almost assured that, when all ceremonial sand-tossing has concluded, no one from City Hall will have mentioned the nearby “Sausage Parcel.” That isn’t the type of story the city likes to tell — especially when it’s trying to drum up business along the waterfront.

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The Sausage Parcel is a grassy patch of land sandwiched between the convention center and the South Boston parking lots that hold Boston’s development future. The narrow parcel takes its name from its irregular teardrop shape: It’s wedged between Congress Street and a Big Dig vent stack, and is just 90 feet at its widest point. The sausage name also reflects the parcel’s recent ugly history. The parcel owner wants to build a $150 million apartment tower, but City Hall is holding out for a hotel that it knows can’t be built now. Bids to amend permits usually get turned around in a month or two, but the Sausage Parcel developer’s permit application has been sitting on a City Hall desk for eight months now, gathering dust.

Development battles normally erupt when parcels are contested, land is scarce, and building is a zero-sum game. That isn’t the case in the South Boston waterfront. For all its positive momentum, the neighborhood still has holes to plug. It needs more hotel rooms to service the convention center, but it also needs more residents and more retail. The neighborhood needs more building, period, and it has dozens of development sites waiting to be filled. That’s why the rigid line drawn around the Sausage Parcel looks so strange.

The Sausage Parcel is currently permitted for a 500-room hotel, and the project may never pencil out. Madison Properties, the parcel’s owner, has been trying to make a hotel work on the site for six years. Madison figured the location, a block from the convention center in a hotel-starved neighborhood, was a lock. But Madison couldn’t nail down a loan or a hotel operator before the construction market ground to a halt. Today, economic conditions have changed, but the site’s geography hasn’t: It’s far too narrow to accommodate the ballrooms and meeting space that drive high hotel room rates, while the rates attached to limited-service hotels don’t come close to covering the cost of a union-built tower.

A year ago, Madison went to the city with a plan to build a smaller 400-unit apartment tower instead, and the financing to do it. The city rebuffed that bid and has barely acknowledged a subsequent effort. Officials inside the Boston Redevelopment Authority are demanding a hotel, and they’re prepared to wait. “It’s a critical site, and it absolutely should be a hotel site,” says Kairos Shen, the BRA’s chief planner. “It is not BRA policy to make an infeasible project into a feasible project, especially if it goes against our long-term planning.”

The nearby convention center looms over the tug of war. City Hall is married to the idea of a hotel on the Sausage Parcel because the convention center doesn’t have enough beds around it to support its operations. Hotel construction is at the heart of the convention center’s expansion planning. At the same time, the convention center has said no developer can afford to build in the neighborhood, so it’s talking about throwing a $200 million subsidy at a proposed 1,000-room hotel nearby, and also subsidizing moderately priced hotels. Convention center planners have been eyeing hotel sites along D Street, where they could subsidize construction by swallowing land and parking costs; their expansion plans haven’t discussed the Sausage Parcel at all, other than to produce a report on the poor economics of a hotel there.

Dennis Dowdle, the principal at Madison Properties, said in a statement that he “wants to be part of the city’s Innovation District and will continue to work with the BRA to make that happen.” What’s uncertain is whether the BRA will ever reciprocate.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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