They were told it would never work. They were told no one would take them seriously. They were told no one would even bid on the project.
The skeptics were out in force seven years ago when the Massachusetts Port Authority introduced a policy it hoped would set a new standard for diversity and equity in real estate development. The agency, a major landowner along Boston’s waterfront, no longer wanted development rights going to the same set of developers, construction firms, and investors. Companies owned by women and people of color needed to be part of the windfall that major building projects represented.
But rather than dictating diversity requirements, Massport at the time left the details up to bidders vying for the right to build on a prime parcel in the Seaport District. Developers had to demonstrate that, if chosen, they would assemble a diverse group of companies to take part in the work.
Not only did the project get built — a $550 million Omni Boston Hotel opens its doors Thursday — but versions of the agency’s diversity policy are being adopted for other projects in the private and public sectors under what is being dubbed the “Massport Model.”
What’s more, companies owned by people of color, once considered too small to bid for a megaproject, are now attached to other big projects because of their Omni experience.
“It’s an incredible experiment,” said Duane Jackson, who was on the Massport board when he pushed for the policy. “It has changed the understanding of what it means to do business in the city of Boston.”
At the 1,054-room hotel’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, speaker after speaker gave nods to Massport’s groundbreaking inclusionary policy.
“In some ways, this really is a miracle,” said Governor Charlie Baker, who spoke at the event held in the lobby and attended by a couple hundred people. “It’s a miracle of collaboration, it’s a miracle of planning, and it’s a miracle of perseverance, determination, and diligence to get it done.”
To show how serious it was about getting inclusive bids for a long term lease on its land on Summer Street, Massport dangled an incentive: Diversity would count as 25 percent of the final score assigned to each bid, making it as important as design, construction, and financing in the evaluation process. Six bids were submitted, and Massport awarded the project to a joint venture between Omni Hotels & Resorts and New Boston Hospitality.
“We gave the private sector the opportunity, the room, and the flexibility to come up with creative ideas,” said Massport chief executive Lisa Wieland whose predecessor, Tom Glynn, launched the program. The policy has been applied to two more Massport parcels in the Seaport.
Wieland has emphasized how Massport can’t create inclusionary development on a citywide basis. Others also need to do their part, she said, citing the efforts of Fidelity Investments and Harvard to prioritize diversity in their real estate projects.
“It is a repeatable model,” she said, “and we have seen the ripple effect of it.”
Consider what has happened to two entrepreneurs of color who were part of the winning bid four years since the Omni broke ground.
Janey Construction Management had never worked as a general contractor on a downtown Boston tower until it paired up in 2015 with John Moriarty & Associates, one of the region’s biggest construction firms, to be part of the bid to build the Omni hotel. In 2019, Janey began its second megaproject in a joint venture with Turner Construction, a huge complex Fidelity is building on Commonwealth Pier on the site of the World Trade Center.
Greg Janey, chief executive of Janey, said that for much of his three decades in business, the firm has been relegated to projects in certain residential neighborhoods, as if Black general contractors could not cross Massachusetts Avenue to work downtown. The Omni job, however, has opened doors ― Janey has seen his bid opportunities double.
“We only got to look at the skyline, not build it,” said Janey who grew up in Roxbury and whose cousin is Acting Mayor Kim Janey. “Now we’re building it.”
Moody Nolan, the country’s largest Black-owned architecture firm, opened an office in Boston with three architects as it oversaw the interior architecture and design of the Omni. Today, Moody Nolan has 15 architects and has added three more Boston-area projects to its portfolio, including another development on Massport land, and two related to Harvard’s Allston research campus.
Brian Tibbs, managing partner at Moody Nolan who also oversees the Boston office, said he tells officials in other cities about the Massport policy, which now has been adopted on a case-by-case basis for parcels owned by the City of Boston and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
“We want to give credit to Massport for having the courage to make a commitment to doing this,” said Tibbs. “It builds wealth among minority investors and firms like myself. We’re able to come to a city and increase our footprint.”
That courage began with Jackson, the Massport board member. The idea for a diversity policy was borne out of his experience ― being Black and sidelined as a real estate investor. He, in turn, gives credit to Glynn and Michael Angelini, the Massport board chair at the time. Glynn brought in civil rights activist Ernie Green as a consultant. .
“We have a bad reputation on race,” Glynn recalled telling Green. “I want you to be in the room.”
If not for the Massport policy, Richard Taylor, who is Black, said he would not have pursued the Omni bid as an investor. Taylor, who served as transportation secretary under Governor William Weld, knew he otherwise wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting in on the project. Taylor didn’t have any hotel construction experience, but he knew how to assemble a diverse team, which became New Boston Hospitality.
His first call was to prominent Boston architect Howard Elkus, whom he knew personally. Taylor and Elkus, who died in 2017, sought out Boston developer Jon Davis. He recruited Robin Brown, a former general manager of the Boston Four Seasons turned hotel builder.
Taylor brought in diverse investors — 39 of them, some of whom attended the ribbon-cutting on Wednesday. Now Taylor wants opportunity to spread beyond the Omni’s team to other underrepresented entrepreneurs.
“In order for this to work, it had to be broadly adopted,” Taylor told me of the Massport Model. “We need a good five-to-seven year run on this. You need multiple projects per year.”
For Davis, who is white, the experience of working on the Omni was eye-opening. For most of his four decades in the real estate business, he hardly ever interacted with people of color. Davis considered himself civic minded, but in recent years realized he needed to live more of his values at work, too. He got involved in programs to attract college students of color to work in the real estate industry, and sponsored interns of color at his firm. This year, Davis hired a human resources director who is Black and also serves as its first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“I compartmentalized my professional life and my commitment to repairing the world,” said Davis. “That has started to change, and we have changed with it.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.