The operators of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center have launched a new plan to expand the sprawling South Boston complex, with the hopes it will help the city capture an increasing share of the convention market as it rebounds from the pandemic.
On Thursday morning, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority board approved a revision of the BCEC master plan to reflect a $400 million expansion and authorized MCCA staff to hire an architect to design it. Then, in the afternoon, representatives for the MCCA and master plan architect Populous shared the new vision with local hoteliers at the convention center.
It will be the third attempt to expand the BCEC in the past decade. In 2015, Governor Charlie Baker, who controls a majority of the authority’s board seats, halted a $1 billion expansion of the BCEC in his first few months in office, citing the cost. Then, in 2019, MCCA executive director David Gibbons presented plans for a $500 million expansion, to be partly funded by the sale of the Hynes Convention Center, the BCEC’s smaller sister facility in the Back Bay.
But the sale of the Hynes ran into political pushback, and the idea was shelved when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. This time around, Gibbons is decoupling the BCEC expansion from the Hynes and would pay for the new construction entirely from tourism taxes.
“We’re overdue for an expansion,” said Massachusetts Lodging Association president Paul Sacco, who sits on the MCCA board and believes the extra space will draw more events of all sizes. “It’s going to set the pace for the next 10 or 15 years.”
The release of the new BCEC master plan comes just days after a state legislative committee advanced an economic development bill that would delay a decision about the sale of the Hynes for at least a year. That bill also would give the green light to the MCCA to expand the BCEC.
This expansion differs from the 2019 concept in a few key ways. There would be no new vast exhibition hall, and the primary construction would take place on D Street, next to the Lawn on D park, instead of behind the convention center on its main parking lot. The latest plan would add about 200,000 square feet of what’s known as “sellable space” to the center’s existing 700,000-plus square feet. MCCA officials expect construction could begin by the end of 2023 and be done in 2026.
The project’s centerpiece: an addition dubbed “The Pavilion on D.” The Pavilion would feature a 75,000 square-foot “multi-purpose” space, a new ground-floor entry off D Street that could be enclosed by giant glass doors, and a deck overlooking the lawn. The project would also improve the existing complex with a new kitchen and loading areas, a tunnel under Summer Street to the Omni Hotel, and a new 23,000 square-foot ballroom/meeting space in an empty part of the building.
The MCCA is seeking more flexibility to hold major events at the same time, or in close proximity to each other. That’s challenging today because a big event needs to occupy much of the BCEC’s space on set-up and takedown days. Creating a second entrance, off D Street, would also make it easier to host multiple events while helping bring more life to that stretch of South Boston. The Populous master plan update estimates the expansion would generate an additional 140,000 hotel nights a year in Boston and Cambridge, on top of the BCEC’s current average of 415,000.
“With two ballrooms, you can layer in a show while the other show is in progress,” Gibbons said. “This gives us a north and south campus. It really increases the functionality and the impact of the building.”
The project would be funded from taxes that flow to the convention center fund from sources such as hotels, restaurants, taxis, and bus tours. By the end of the month, the fund is expected to hold nearly $250 million. That money along with future surpluses — tax income beyond what is needed to satisfy the authority’s bondholders and subsidize its operations — should be more than enough to pay the costs of design, permitting, and construction of the new addition, Gibbons said.
Omni Hotel co-developer Robin Brown was among the hoteliers who attended the BCEC presentation on Thursday. He said the additional function space would “raise the tide” for hotel bookings across the city. Brown quipped, “To say I’m enthused is probably a slight understatement.”
Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and former head of the MCCA, liked the plans to enliven D Street and increase the building’s flexibility. But he was disappointed not to see a broader strategy that involves the Hynes.
“I’m a believer in face-to-face [meetings] and I do think they’ll return,” Rooney said. “[But] I really think the BCEC and the Hynes and their role in our convention strategy should be thought of together.”
Convention center skeptics, meanwhile, couldn’t avoid déjà vu as the MCCA embarked on yet another attempt at expansion, even as the future of the Hynes remains up in the air.
“This is not a growth industry,” said Charlie Chieppo, a senior fellow with the libertarian-leaning Pioneer Institute think tank. “We already have more convention space than we need. How can we make a plan like this when it now looks like we may not be able to sell the Hynes? Shouldn’t we know what’s happening with that white elephant [first]?
Heywood Sanders, a public administration professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the concept hinges on a premise he says is “seriously flawed if not totally unjustifiable” — that the extra space will notably increase hotel bookings in the city.
“We were living in an environment of decreasing attendance before the pandemic,” Sanders said. Meanwhile, he added, “the BCEC faces this incredibly competitive ‘buyer’s market.’ Most every major center is significantly subsidizing [the space] or giving it away.”