Carpe diem, Charlie Baker.
That’s how the governor should be approaching the sale of the Hynes Convention Center. Don’t just sell to the highest bidder. The new project will likely include office towers and lab space out of economic necessity, but Boston deserves more, too. Baker should make redevelopment of nearly six acres of prime real estate something extraordinary, a project that can reshape the Back Bay for generations to come.
The sale shouldn’t be treated as just another disposition of government property or a transaction to check off on a gubernatorial to-do list. Baker wanted to offload the Hynes in late 2019, but then the pandemic struck. Now, his administration is expected to soon restart the process of putting the decades-old meeting space on Boylston Street up for sale.
Baker wants to sell the under-utilized Hynes, which would need more than $200 million in renovations to remain competitive for hosting host conferences. The state would then try to concentrate the region’s conference business at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on the South Boston waterfront.
Because the Hynes is public property, the government can exert an inordinate amount of influence on what happens to it compared with privately-owned land. The state could wield even more control if it keeps the land and offers a longterm lease for the use of it, similar to how Massachusetts Port Authority handles its waterfront real estate.
There is no shortage of suggestions for what should be built. The arts community is clamoring for rehearsal space and a place where artists can live and work. Another idea: open space a la Bryant Park, an urban oasis next to Times Square in New York City. Of course, more housing is always needed, and diversity should play a significant role in determining who wins the redevelopment bid.
One of the neighborhood’s biggest concerns is what happens to the many Back Bay hotels that fill their rooms with people attending conferences at the Hynes. The Back Bay Association and the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay are requesting that any new project include 150,000 square feet of convention and meeting space, which is slightly smaller than what is available at the Hynes today.
How much and what kind of meeting space should be vigorously studied, especially since the pandemic upended the convention business. Could conferences in more intimate settings be the future?
Here’s another reason why Baker can set expectations high: Boston remains one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, and the Hynes site is considered a jewel in that crown. It represents a rare opportunity to do something transformative in the heart of the city.
Last go-around, the state hired Colliers to handle the Hynes sale, but the process never got to the marketing stage. The real estate services firm remains engaged, and already at least dozen developers, both locally and nationally, have been circling to get more details, said Frank Petz, a managing director at Colliers in Boston.
Petz expects some bids to propose razing the low-slung Hynes and redeveloping the entire site, while others may decide to incorporate the existing structure into a new project. There’s enough room to accommodate a mix of uses and multiple towers.
“It’s the most desirable land opportunity in the country,” said Petz.
Perhaps real estate types are prone to being perpetually bullish about Boston, or anything they’re charged with selling. But Colliers sits on data that indicate city real estate is truly desirable: The Boston region led the nation in office and life science real estate sales in 2021, and the city’s “Class A” office market commanded the third highest rents in the nation behind only Manhattan and San Francisco.
One would think the hybrid workplace would put the brakes on building more office towers, but Petz pointed out that employers are flocking to new construction. They want space that is environmentally-friendly and state-of-the-art when it comes to “healthy” buildings. The idea is to make the workplace so appealing that workers won’t mind commuting.
”Going back to an office should be a magnet, not a mandate,” he said.
Petz won’t divulge which developers have been poking around. He estimates a sale could generate hundreds of millions of dollars. My reporting indicates that the usual suspects — such as Boston Properties, Steve Samuels, Related Beal, Tishman Speyer, and HYM Investment Group — are likely to take a look, though no one wants to talk about it.
Suffolk chief executive John Fish said he can attest to the high amount of interest. He was part of a proposed project nearby on Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue, but that deal fell apart. Now he’s hoping to be a construction partner on a Hynes bid, which he believes will dramatically change that section of the Back Bay.
“This is the biggest missing piece of the puzzle,” Fish said.
In a February 2020 report, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority ― which operates the Hynes ― suggested that it could be replaced with a 2.3-million-square-foot project — primarily office space, along with shops and restaurants and 650 housing units. The report, by RKG Associates, did not factor in the pandemic, and is being updated.
Selling the Hynes will involve getting buy-in from the Legislature, which will need to authorize it. Last time, the Baker administration bungled things by not building consensus beforehand. There was so much opposition at a legislative hearing it was hard to see the Hynes sale happening anytime soon.
To make sure that doesn’t happen again, the governor should work closely with lawmakers, especially those that represent Boston, including state senator Will Brownsberger and representatives Jay Livingstone, Jon Santiago, and Aaron Michlewitz.
Baker would also be wise to coordinate with Mayor Michelle Wu and the City Council to mitigate the impact of the Hynes closing. Even better, the state should give Boston a formal role early on in deciding the fate of the Hynes and what might come next. In her previous role as city councilor, Wu was not shy about holding up development projects she didn’t like. Whatever the state decides to do with the site, the developer will eventually need to go through an approval process helmed by the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
It would have been easy for Baker to leave the fate of the Hynes up to the next governor. I’m glad he didn’t because I can’t see a sale being a priority for any of the candidates. At the same time, Baker shouldn’t treat the Hynes like a fire sale. The state isn’t hard up for money; it’s awash in billions of dollars between federal relief money that has yet to be spent and tax revenues on pace to run well ahead of projections for the second straight year.
There were over 300 public meetings to decide whether to build the Southie convention center, and dozens more meetings later to debate its expansion, recounted Jim Rooney in a CommonWealth Magazine op-ed last year. Rooney ran the convention center authority before heading the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
The pandemic put off much-needed public debate. Now Baker needs to set in motion a thoughtful and inclusive process, one that leads to an extraordinary outcome. Done right, the sale of the Hynes could be a big part of his legacy.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.