The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s efforts to expand its flagship convention center in South Boston have hit a new complication amid disagreements on Beacon Hill about whether the project should be fast-tracked or put on hold.
A key voice has emerged calling to slow things down: State Senator Nick Collins, whose district includes the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.
The Legislature’s bonding committee, which Collins cochairs, last week rewrote a section of a broader economic development bill to remove language allowing the MCCA to proceed with the expansion of the BCEC after simply filing an already completed report with the Legislature. Instead, the authority would need to appoint a community advisory group of South Boston residents to advise on the expansion, and hire a diversity director to help oversee MCCA real estate deals such as the potential redevelopment of the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay.
Then on Monday, House leaders issued their own version of the bill allowing the BCEC expansion to proceed and leaving out any mention of a diversity director or community advisory group. As for the Hynes, the House plan could expedite a sale, by requiring a study of the property’s potential to be redeveloped or renovated, by the end of 2022. That’s a year sooner than an earlier deadline proposed by lawmakers.
The bill is a clear sign that the House leadership is OK with the BCEC expansion, but Collins’ resistance might be tough to overcome, given that the project would be in his district. Collins had supported a previous, larger expansion proposal, but that one involved years of vetting. This newest expansion plan, a $400 million project unveiled last month, has not had the same scrutiny.
That doesn’t fly with Collins, who wants to see the concept vetted by the community first.
“It’s absurd to think that dropping off a pamphlet at offices at the State House constitutes a community process for an expansion,” Collins said.
Collins also said he’s not sure a big expansion is the best use of the tax dollars that continue to pour into the convention center fund — now totaling about $270 million, including $80 million set aside to satisfy bondholders — from sources such as hotel stays, restaurant meals, taxi rides, and tour bus ticket sales. Collins hinted that the MCCA, whose board is primarily appointed by the governor, was trying to rush an expansion through during Governor Charlie Baker’s last year in office. (Baker has also been a leading proponent for redeveloping the Hynes.)
“You hit a boom after weathering a storm, so now you have to go spend that down?” Collins said of the convention center fund. “It’s a last-ditch effort to get something done that should have been discussed over the last two years . . . Spending that down, even if it is a surplus, on an expansion that hasn’t even been vetted, isn’t really a prudent way to operate.”
Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means, said House leaders are comfortable with the BCEC expansion, and they decided to move up the deadline for the Hynes study so lawmakers would have the findings by the start of the new two-year session in January. Both issues still need to be taken up in the Senate.
MCCA executive director David Gibbons said he remains hopeful about getting approval for the expansion before the Legislature’s July 31 adjournment. The next step would be to hire an architect to design the expansion; architectural firm Populous has already sketched a rough concept focused on a new addition along D Street that would make it easier to host multiple conventions in the same week.
Gibbons said the new design will break up the giant wall that now faces D Street, and bring more vibrancy to that windswept stretch of South Boston.
“It’s not another big-box convention center that kills a neighborhood,” Gibbons said. “We’re becoming a center of that neighborhood.”
And he didn’t sound worried about a possible dustup with Collins.
“We look forward, as we always have, to working collaboratively with the senator and the local South Boston delegation,” Gibbons said. “We have always worked closely with them and we appreciate their counsel.”
Gibbons said the MCCA already takes neighborhood concerns and diversity into consideration for real estate decisions. Gibbons cited the diverse team of consultants that brokerage Colliers brought on to market the Hynes property, which he says would need hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades if it were to continue as a convention center.
Herby Duverné at Boston developer Rise Together is among those who would prefer to see the diversity requirement in legislation, as the authority looks for developers at the Hynes and weighs the future of its excess acreage in South Boston. Duverné, who sits on the board of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said his construction firm is a finalist to develop affordable housing off D Street and his building security firm, Windwalker Group, has already lined up work at a building going up on Congress Street — both made possible because of the Massachusetts Port Authority’s approach to counting diversity when evaluating bids. The language Collins is championing would require the MCCA to do the same, by adopting the “Massport Model.”
“We all know from what we’ve been seeing from the ‘Massport Model’ that it works, and it works well,” Duverné said. “But we don’t want to stop just there.”