Another Boston Marathon is in the record books, and Boylston Street has returned to hosting traffic instead of runners and hordes of spectators.
And for three days leading up to that event, the Hynes Convention Center relived its glory days as the place where some 30,000 runners picked up their bib numbers, browsed through the latest in running gear, and sampled energy bars.
But even the delight of 30,000 hopeful runners couldn’t hide the fact that this building, despite its relatively recent vintage, has seen better days. And like those old sneakers that have lost their bounce, it’s time the Hynes was retired.
Truth be told, this grossly underutilized facility that occupies 5.68 acres of prime Back Bay real estate has long been relegated to hosting small meetings and conferences and the occasional consumer show to justify its existence — and that was before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the convention business generally. The Hynes ended up being used as a mass vaccination site during part of that time.
Governor Charlie Baker proposed selling the building two years ago and using the proceeds to fund an expansion of its much larger, fancier, and newer sibling in the Seaport District, the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Then the pandemic hit and lawmakers spared themselves the angst that attends any effort to sell off a chunk of state property.
Baker, who has been telegraphing for weeks that he’ll make one more go at selling off the Hynes, made it official Thursday, making it part of his much-awaited $3.5 billion economic development package.
“People need to start thinking a little differently,” Baker said recently. “Right now, we have a big space there in the middle of an important neighborhood that’s basically dark almost all the time.”
The idea of this or any convention facility is to put “heads on beds” — to fill nearby hotel rooms (and restaurants and shops) with out-of-towners who will open their wallets during those off-hours not spent in meetings. But hosting the Massachusetts Bar exam in July (and again in February, when it is the only event on the Hynes calendar) doesn’t put many heads on beds.
Sure, who doesn’t love the young people in wild costumes roaming around Back Bay for the annual anime convention, returning this year after a two-year hiatus. But in terms of economic impact, it’s not exactly the Yankee Dental Congress, scheduled to return to the BCEC in January.
The Back Bay facility, which underwent a major reconstruction in 1988, replacing the Hynes Memorial Auditorium, built in 1963, would need an estimated $289 million in capital replacement costs over the next 10 years just to maintain its current state, according to the governor’s office.
“To subsidize two convention centers is really something that, as a community, we can’t necessarily afford,” David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority told a legislative committee back in 2019. The authority runs both the Hynes and the BCEC. “People don’t realize that the Hynes is only occupied 40 percent of the time.”
And that was during the good times. The MCCA estimates that demand for the venue may fall to 70 percent of pre-COVID levels. Most of those meetings and conferences currently on the Hynes schedule are listed as hybrid events, meaning some participants join remotely and local hotels get fewer “heads on beds.”
Now, any change in the Back Bay landscape is greeted with a large dose of anxiety among business and political interests — none of whom are responsible for paying the bills at the Hynes.
“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,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said. “I think we need a very careful plan in place.”
But Baker sweetened the deal by proposing that proceeds from the sale, which would be conducted by the MCCA, would go to affordable housing and include some givebacks to the Back Bay neighborhood.
Of course, any plan to put the parcel into private hands would also mean putting nearly six acres and whatever is built on them onto the city’s list of tax-paying properties. The city of Boston has nothing to lose and everything to gain from the sale of the Hynes.
Baker’s office estimates that in addition to the sale price, development of the site could generate some $84 million in taxes, compared to current estimates of $14 million.
So this isn’t just about cutting the state’s losses — although that certainly is a plus. It’s also about putting a piece of property to its highest and best use. And now that Wu has welcomed her new planning czar, certainly Arthur Jemison should have a seat at the table in deciding how that property can be developed.
But none of that is set into motion unless and until the Legislature sees the wisdom of repurposing the Hynes and acts on that broader economic package before going home at the end of July.
The white elephant on Boylston Street has outlived its usefulness. Surely sensible people on Beacon Hill can realize that — and act on it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.