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Southie politicians push back on plans to open land near BCEC for private redevelopment

The politicians say that since the sites were originally taken by eminent domain to support the convention industry, they should be used that way, not opened up for housing or lab space.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is seeking developers for roughly six-acres of parking lots it owns along D and E Streets near the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

South Boston’s elected politicians have started a showdown with the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority over its efforts to redevelop six-plus acres of windswept lots across from the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

State Senator Nick Collins, state Representative David Biele, and City Councilors Ed Flynn and Michael Flaherty signed a letter that went to MCCA chief David Gibbons on Wednesday, formally objecting to his proposal to seek bids on a 99-year ground lease for the land.

Their letter accuses the MCCA of overreaching by pursuing commercial development on land taken via eminent domain for a public use. It came the same day bids were due; an MCCA spokesman said two development teams — one led by Cronin Development and the other by Boston Global Investors — submitted proposals. The MCCA’s bid documents are relatively open ended about what should be built on the site, other than calling for community space and room for the convention center’s corporate office, as well as parking.

The Southie politicians say the MCCA should have solicited community input when crafting parameters for the bidding process, which began about a month ago. They also note that these parcels, two along D Street and a third on E Street behind the Aloft and Element hotels, were taken with a particular public purpose in mind: to expand or support the state’s convention business.

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The letter was also sent to Michael Heffernan, who represents the Baker administration on the MCCA’s board, and incoming administration and finance secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz, who will replace Heffernan on the board after Governor-elect Maura Healey takes office next month.

Flynn called this an “11th hour proposal to sell off their assets” before Healey takes charge, while Collins said MCCA leaders are acting more like property developers than convention organizers. In their letter, the politicians ask for the redevelopment process to be postponed indefinitely.

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“They want to be full-time developers,” Collins said. “There is an agency that does this kind of stuff and it’s not the convention center. ... It’s clear that the leaders at the MCCA don’t want to run the convention center anymore. They should apply to work at MassDevelopment.”

Gibbons responded by saying that putting these parcels out to bid fulfills several public purposes, and thus the original intent of the eminent domain actions about a decade ago — all done via so-called “friendly takings” that are negotiated as opposed to forced on the landowners.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority still has about 30 acres to be developed around the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston. This photo shows the full extent of what's left to be developed. The MCCA has put the eastern portion, between D and E streets, out to bid for development.Photo courtesy of the MCCA

For one, Gibbons said the long-term lease revenues will help support the MCCA’s convention business by providing a steady flow of cash, particularly during lean times, such as earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. The MCCA has long wanted to bring more commercial development to that stretch, he said, in part to help the two hotels there. And it’s in keeping with the MCCA’s overall goal of transforming D Street into a pleasant boulevard, he said, in part by diverting many of the trucks that now use it one block to the east, to E Street.

“We need to wrap [the Aloft and Element] with an ecosystem, and create a boulevard that is worthy of the neighborhood,” Gibbons said. “It starts with a public purpose and the ecosystem to support the hotels. That was always the intent.”

Auditor-elect Diana DiZoglio, who is leaving her position in the state Senate, said in a text that serious questions have been raised about the MCCA’s “seemingly rushed” process to redevelop the land at the very end of the Baker administration.

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Jim Rooney, GIbbons’ predecessor at the MCCA, said in an e-mail that the parcels, which include the current sites of the two hotels, were taken to help activate the D Street corridor, in support of a potential convention center expansion. Rooney said he’s not familiar with the current plans but the passage of time should not mitigate the requirement that the land be used for “demonstrable public purposes.”

The news that the land was going to be redeveloped took developer John Matteson, one of the former owners of the E Street parcel, by surprise. “The whole purpose was that they were looking to do a parking structure on that site,” he said. “I feel it was kind of weird how it has turned out.”

Gibbons said the properties would still host garage space for up to 800 vehicles. But land values in that part of South Boston have soared in the past decade, making office or lab development more appealing than a standalone garage.

“The dynamics of real estate values allow us, as an authority, to [secure] this financial base,” Gibbons said.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.