To some, the Charles F. Hurley Building is a giant concrete tombstone, memorializing a once-vibrant city block buried by urban renewal.
For others, it’s a historic treasure, a throwback to a grandiose, monolithic style of architecture.
To the Baker administration, the three-plus-acre Hurley property along Cambridge and Staniford streets could be something else entirely: a financial windfall.
As the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance entertains several private-sector bids for the Hurley, the offers remain under wraps. The administration has multiple goals for this redevelopment: consolidating downtown state offices, breaking up this vast “superblock” to make it pedestrian-friendly, and modernizing a property that has fallen into disrepair.
Then there’s the potential monetary jackpot, which could reach into the hundreds of millions. We are talking about a prime downtown spot for a new tower, at the border of Beacon Hill and the West End, near every major T line and Massachusetts General Hospital. Although DCAMM engaged the public before seeking bids, the agency has kept the process shrouded in secrecy after developers presented their visions for the site.
Here’s what we do know. Four bids for a long-term lease of the Hurley property were submitted by last month’s deadline. Each finalist met the state’s request to accommodate up to 350,000 square feet of government offices — more than enough room for the state functions there today. All four include additional development, such as labs, retail, and offices. DCAMM hopes to pick a winning bid by the end of March and announce that selection by the end of June.
At this point in a typical disposition of a significant state or city property, we would at least know who the bidders are and maybe have some indication of what they want to do. When city officials sold off the Winthrop Square Garage, for example, they published all six proposals and asked the development teams to show off their plans at Faneuil Hall in 2016. But with the Hurley, the Baker administration says keeping the identities and details a secret at this point will help ensure the state gets the strongest bids.
Things get complicated, as they often do in Boston, once history is factored in. In this case, the six-story Hurley, with its distinctive rippled concrete walls, was a key piece of the Government Service Center complex that famed Brutalist architect Paul Rudolph planned for the area — as was the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center next door. (The complex also was referred to as the Government Services Center, with the “s.”) A third structure — a tower for “health, education and welfare” offices — was envisioned but never built. These buildings were designed to encircle a courtyard, a deliberate contrast to City Hall Plaza’s windswept openness two blocks away. The Hurley lobby also features two large-scale murals by painter Costantino Nivola.
State officials may have hoped they could completely raze the 50-year-old Hurley, outdated as it is, when they first unveiled the redevelopment effort in October 2019. A complete demolition, after all, was seen as the best way to attract developers.
At the end of 2020, DCAMM disclosed two important concessions. Any developer would need to make public improvements across the entire site, including another two acres for open space and other public amenities. That would reopen a fenced-off area long used for parking alongside the Lindemann, even though the Lindemann itself would remain untouched. And the agency would no longer contemplate a complete demolition of the Hurley, despite its antiquated and inefficient design.
The moment marked a big victory for Rudolph’s fans. But what about the neighbors?
In the West End and Beacon Hill, the Hurley project is seen as a way to redress some of the urban renewal mistakes of six decades ago — mistakes that displaced thousands of people and businesses and robbed the area of vitality.
City Councilor Kenzie Bok wants some of that damage repaired. She said there are still West Enders whose homes were cleared to make way for the Hurley. This land was taken for the public good, ostensibly. Kenzie argues the public good should drive the decisionmaking now, as DCAMM weighs the finalists. For example, she noted the area could use an indoor place where young people can gather and play sports, particularly after Basketball City closed across from the TD Garden.
Neighbors are eager to see a new street through the complex, at least for pedestrians’ use, opening up the desolate courtyard.
Rudolph’s idea was for a bustling public plaza, but almost no one goes there now. Many passersby don’t even know it exists, hidden behind those concrete walls. Likewise, the area along Merrimac Street — below the Lindemann’s grand, twisty stairway — was intended for open space, not state employee parking.
Duane Lucia of the West End Museum said many residents would like to see stores along Staniford Street, to break up that walled-off stretch. A school once stood where the Hurley is now, he said. Maybe the new development could bring one back. Or maybe the developer will consider a park or affordable housing. DCAMM should be picking the best project for the community, Lucia said, not the one that puts the most money into its coffers.
In 2015, MassDevelopment reaped $280 million by selling off the long-term lease for the 100 Cambridge St. tower across the street. Could the Hurley go for even more? Without seeing the developers’ submissions, it’s hard to know. However, the expense of constructing a new tower on such a complex site will be an important part of the equation.
Some commercial real estate opportunities are essentially blank slates — flat, open lots with few or no buildings. The Hurley represents a completely different kind of opportunity, but, given its location, one that could be quite rewarding to an ambitious development team.
The wrecking balls rolled through six decades ago, clearing out families, leveling shops and tenements. In their place: a patchwork of walled-off towers and mini-fortresses. It’s the only West End a generation of Bostonians may ever know.
Now, with the Baker administration close to a momentous decision on the Hurley, it could be time to open the neighborhood back up again.