A little more than two years ago, Governor Charlie Baker hung a “for sale” sign on the Hynes Convention Center. Then came COVID, and those plans went on hold.
Now, the Baker administration is preparing to try again to sell the Hynes, in what is a very different world for conventions and big-time development. And that’s about to spark a debate over what to do with a key corner of the Back Bay.
Baker on Wednesday indicated he’d include a measure to sell the Hynes in a larger economic development bill he’s set to file in the coming weeks, saying at an unrelated news conference that he’d engage the Legislature on “how to make that space active and vibrant.”
Business travel, and the foot traffic that comes with it, has shifted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baker said, which might suggest a better use for the Hynes site — which covers six acres on a key corner of Boylston Street — than a large convention center.
“People need to start thinking a little differently,” he said. “Right now we have a big space there in the middle of an important neighborhood that’s basically dark almost all the time.”
Already city officials and neighborhood groups are gearing up to make sure that whatever replaces the Hynes benefits the blocks around it, not just state coffers and private developers.
“We need to have a serious conversation about what the use will be because this is central to the neighborhood, the city economy, and this decision will have wide-ranging ripple effects,” said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. “I think we need a very careful plan in place.”
Baker first floated the idea of selling the Hynes in 2019, as part of a plan to help fund a $500 million expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston. His administration portrayed the Hynes as the BCEC’s smaller, dated sibling — a decades-old facility with an antiquated layout that would eventually need more than $200 million in upgrades.
But doing so requires state lawmakers’ approval, and the proposed sale ran into fierce resistance from various Back Bay constituencies — enough that a co-chair of the legislative committee overseeing the bill in January 2020 said it would be “dead in the water” without serious negotiations with the neighborhood. Then, the pandemic hit, and the idea went on the shelf.
Now, apparently, Baker is dusting it off — after two years in which the city’s tourism industry has been hit hard, with relatively few large conventions during that period.
This time, Baker hasn’t specified whether he intends that money from selling the Hynes would go to expand the BCEC, but on Wednesday, he touted “a ton of opportunity at the BCEC in South Boston.”
For its part, the Hynes’ site could be attractive for a range of uses.
In February 2020, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority released a report showing that it could hold a mixed-use project as big as 2.3 million square feet, enough to accommodate 7,000 workers and generate $23 million a year in new property taxes for the city.
State lawmakers representing the Back Bay were skeptical, noting that the complications of building atop the Massachusetts Turnpike — which runs beneath the Hynes — could limit the size of what could go there. But the potential was massive.
Of course, the 2020 study envisioned a complex largely of office space. Given the shifts in the real estate market since then, some say life science development would be far more likely now.
“Lately the discussion of every parcel is a discussion about lab space,” said City Councilor Kenzie Bok, whose district includes a portion of Back Bay near the Hynes.
And Bok is among those who point to the importance of keeping “significant meeting space” there, both for the hotels, restaurants, and stores that have grown up around the convention center and for the city’s tourism economy in general. That may prove more valuable, she said, than simply selling it to the highest bidder.
“This is a public parcel, and so we really have to be thinking about the public value and the use,” Bok said. “And it’s not just public value in terms of a check.”
Elliott Laffer, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, agrees, calling the Hynes perhaps “the best-located convention center in the United States,” and notes that the wake of a pandemic that has upended business travel and meetings may not be the best time to make permanent decisions about the future of a convention center.
“The future of the meeting and convention business is so uncertain,” he said.
Laffer’s group and the Back Bay Association are already circulating a list of conditions that a sale must meet to garner their support. Among them: A promise that any building would not cast shadows on Commonwealth Avenue a few blocks away — which could limit potential heights — and a requirement that redevelopment include 150,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. The group also wants to see the internal connections with the Prudential Center maintained, and that any lab uses be limited to Biolab Safety Level 1 or 2, the two safest categories.
The Baker administration would do well to heed these requests, said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, lest it face the same blowback it received last time around.
“This is the fast track,” she said. “This is the easiest solution. If they want to sell, they should benefit from the stakeholders in the neighborhood and our experience with this. … We all want the neighborhood to continue to be successful.”
A few of these conditions were proposed in 2019. The meeting-space requirement, for example, was rebuffed at the time by MCCA, which runs both the Hynes and BCEC, and it’s likely the agency will not support such a requirement this time around.
Nate Little, an MCCA spokesman, said the agency could not support spending hundreds of millions during the next decade to keep the Hynes running as is.
“That’s why we support the governor’s effort to sell the Hynes,” he said.
And it’s uncertain whether neighborhood groups will have as much leverage this time. Unlike in 2019 when the Hynes sale was a stand-alone piece of legislation, this effort is intended to be part of a broader economic development bill that lawmakers will be widely expected to pass.
Still, the Boston Planning & Development Agency will ultimately need to approve any development there, giving the Wu administration considerable sway in the plan. And even those with an interest in both convention centers say it’s essential to strike the right balance here.
“We need to get this right,” said City Councilor Ed Flynn, whose district touches both the Hynes and the BCEC. “For the benefit of both the Back Bay and South Boston.”
Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.