State lawmakers have put the brakes on Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to redevelop the Hynes Convention Center, advancing legislation instead that delays a decision on the future of the Back Bay site until the next administration.
In April, Baker had revived the concept of redeveloping the Hynes, by including language to make the six-acre property available for sale or long-term lease in a broader economic development bill he filed that month.
But on Monday, the Legislature’s economic development committee released its version of the bill, and the Hynes section was rewritten. Gone is the language allowing the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority to market the property for sale as soon as this summer, replaced with a requirement to study the economic implications of redeveloping it or keeping it as a convention center. This study — to be conducted by the offices of the state treasurer, state auditor, and Boston mayor — would be due by the end of December 2023. That would presumably push off a decision about selling the Hynes until 2024, at the earliest, by which point Baker will have left office.
“There needs to be more consideration of the impact on the workers, the impact on the immediate neighborhood, and the impact on the broader economy of the city,” said Senator Eric Lesser, co-chairman of the legislative committee. “That process needs more time and needs to involve all the stakeholders in an intentional way. [A quick sale] wasn’t going to cut it for something that is as significant an asset as the Hynes.”
When asked for a comment, Baker administration officials said multiple studies have already been done about this issue, including one that showed a redevelopment could lead to an increase of more than 5,000 new jobs and tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue. The administration points out that Hynes occupancy levels fluctuated around 60 percent before the COVID-19 pandemic and have not yet recovered to even those levels.
Baker had initially tried to get the Legislature’s approval to redevelop the Hynes site in 2019, billing it as an opportunity to repurpose an underused and outdated facility for a project that could bring more than 2 million square feet of new development. The governor positioned the transfer of the Hynes as a way to help pay for an expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center — the Hynes’s larger, newer sibling — in South Boston. But the idea ran into fierce opposition in the Back Bay and was shelved after the pandemic hit.
Baker resurrected it this spring as part of an array of initiatives he is trying to tackle during his last year in office. This time around, the Hynes redevelopment would be separate from a BCEC expansion and proceeds instead would be primarily used to build affordable housing.
But the proposed sale encountered resistance again, including from hospitality workers union Unite Here Local 26 and the Back Bay Association, the neighborhood’s primary business group.
On June 1, Local 26 drew hundreds of workers to the Hynes to stand in the rain and rally against a sale. Local 26 president Carlos Aramayo said his union represents about 200 people who work at the Hynes and about 2,500 workers at nearby hotels.
“We’ve been pretty clear that coming out of the pandemic, we didn’t think this is the right time to be making this move,” he said. “The industry is just getting back on its feet.”
The BBA, meanwhile, circulated a memo reminding people it could not support a sale without a promise that new development would include a significant amount of meeting space. On Tuesday, the group’s leader praised the new proposal.
“Additional study to understand all the possible outcomes of a Hynes sale or maintaining the Hynes as is ... is a very responsible way to look at such an important asset for Boston and the commonwealth,” BBA president Meg Mainzer-Cohen said.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which operates the Hynes, has stopped booking additional events there beyond the end of 2023, as it awaits a resolution of the issue at the State House.
There are still many legislative steps before the economic development bill becomes law and negotiations will continue over many of its details as the July 31 end of formal sessions draws near. But it appears unlikely that legislative leaders would reverse course on the Hynes, particularly because the proposed study has the support of the Back Bay’s lawmakers.
Representative Jay Livingstone and Senator Will Brownsberger, both of whom represent the Back Bay, told the Globe on Tuesday that they favor the new legislation that delays the Hynes decision and allows for more deliberation.
“It’s a huge issue for the Back Bay and the state,” Livingstone said. “It’s going to dramatically impact businesses, residents, and visitors.”
Brownsberger said it would be a mistake to dispose of the Hynes in this economic development bill, as Baker proposed: “Time is needed to develop more consensus.”