The plan to sell off the Hynes Convention Center raises a natural question: What would go in its place?
We now have a glimpse of what could go up on the nearly six-acre site — or at least what officials at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority envision for the Back Bay location.
At a board meeting on Friday, the convention center authority discussed a new report showing the potential for a 2.3 million-square-foot project — largely consisting of office space, but also including shops and restaurants along with 650 housing units.
Think something on the scale of the John Hancock Tower — sorry, 200 Clarendon — but not quite as tall or narrow.
To convention center chief David Gibbons, the huge boost that redeveloping the Hynes would bring helps his case. He argues that the outdated Hynes should be sold, so the money can be used for a $500 million expansion at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. The MCCA-funded report from RKG Associates suggests a mixed-use scenario at the Hynes location would mean 7,000 new jobs, for example, and $23 million a year in new property taxes for the city. Sure sounds great. But is it worth the loss of a convention center?
Gibbons and his chief financial officer, Mike Esmond, think so. They sent a letter to state lawmakers who represent the Back Bay on Wednesday saying the RKG findings, along with a separate report from real estate firm CBRE about hotel rooms, show a “dramatic improvement in economic activity” should the Hynes be redeveloped.
Good luck with that one. The Hynes sale has plenty of critics in the neighborhood, keenly worried about what the loss of conventioneers would mean for hotels and restaurants there. It’s hard to imagine these two reports, funded by the agency that wants to sell the Hynes, will quell those concerns.
The critics cite two points of contention that they say could make this giant project wishful thinking: height restrictions along Boylston Street, and the tunnel for the Mass. Pike and train tracks that run under the property.
In an interview, Gibbons said RKG’s estimate is conservative and takes into account height limits of up to 120 feet along Boylston Street. Meanwhile, Gibbons notes that two-thirds of the property is on terra firma. The highway deck section could definitely support a four-story building, he said, similar to the Hynes in height.
But the report notes that no architectural or engineering studies were used in the analysis, and identifies the existing deck over the Mass. Pike as a potential constraint to “achieving the anticipated level of buildout.” The 2.3 million-square-foot figure assumes that construction directly over the Pike can be incorporated into the project, or other unspecified engineering solutions.
Gibbons also notes that the outdated Hynes needs nearly $270 million in capital improvements over the next 10 years, just to keep it operating at its current capacity. Surely, he said, the neighborhood would prefer a building that is brimming with activity constantly, as opposed to one that is essentially dark for half the year or more.
Governor Charlie Baker agrees with Gibbons. Baker recently said he sees the sale of the Hynes as a “tremendous opportunity to do something different with the space.”
But Gibbons needs to persuade the Legislature, too. Any sale of the Hynes requires legislative approval. A bill to green-light the sale is pending before the Legislature’s state administration committee, which is expected to make a decision by mid-May. The two committee chairs raised concerns during a hearing last month, after listening to their Back Bay colleagues.
Those colleagues remain unconvinced. Senator Will Brownsberger said he is hearing from businesses worried about the impact from the Hynes sale, and from residents who fear an oversized development in its place. Representative Jay Livingstone said a developer would need to “create a giant box” on the property, maximizing “every square inch,” to build all 2.3 million square feet. They’re also skeptical that hoteliers would be better off with a huge office complex instead of a convention center, as implied by the CBRE report.
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, who heads the Back Bay Association business group, said she fears the Hynes could be sold and remain vacant for years if a new owner struggles to figure out how best to develop the site. Such a “ghost building,” she said, would be devastating for the neighborhood.
The convention center authority has hired Colliers International to market the property, and to provide better answers to some of these questions. But the question of what exactly could go up there might not be truly resolved until after the property is sold.