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Developers raise the bar for launches

Mayor Martin J. Walsh took the controls of an earthmover while other dignitaries grabbed shovels to launch a building at One Seaport Square.

On a recent rainy morning, a curtain dropped onto an outdoor stage in Boston's Seaport District to reveal a scene that was met with stunned silence.

Posed before guests on a turquoise sofa, a middle-aged couple sat in silent repose. The man held a glass of wine. The woman stared into the distance. The couple didn't move an inch or acknowledge the crowd.

"I give you the Benjamin," a narrator announced, unveiling the name of a residential building now rising at One Seaport Square.

The momentarily dumbfounded crowd broke into hearty applause. This was not a play, but the latest performance on Boston's burgeoning groundbreaking circuit, where the construction of buildings is being celebrated with increasingly elaborate events.


Recent groundbreakings have featured everything from mimes to confetti cannons to professionally produced promotional videos. Early this month, Mayor Martin J. Walsh and other public officials kicked off construction of an East Boston apartment building by using spades to plant heirloom chocolate daisies in a series of clay pots.

"Just don't dig very deep," Lynne Kortenhaus, one of the event planners, cautioned the officials, concerned about damaging the decorative spades, which had been provided by a neighborhood studio called Harbor Arts.

The ceremonies can cost tens of thousands of dollars, including the expense of
a heated tent, hors d'oeuvres, beverages, wait staff, and, of course, the actors, videographers, circus performers, and several engraved silver shovels — you know, for the actual breaking of the ground.

Susan Elsbree has staged dozens of these events. The former Boston Redevelopment Authority communications director, who works in public relations for real estate clients, said groundbreakings are becoming a way for developers to stand out at a time of rapid building activity in the city.

"There are so many housing developments out there, you have to use it as a differentiator," she said. "It's a way to push out your brand, so people know what kind of project you're building."


More than 14.5 million square feet of new buildings are rising across Boston, one of the most active periods of construction in the city's history. Not every project holds a ceremony to celebrate the start of construction, but most developers want to draw attention to their projects.

The tradition of celebrating the start of a building's construction is centuries old. Builders of masonry structures would often bury grain or oil under the cornerstone, symbolizing the strength and energy the building draws from the natural environment.

As building techniques modernized, replacing the cornerstone with structural steel, groundbreakings became more removed from the actual construction process. Instead of laying a large stone or digging space for the foundation, developers now often bring a box of dirt to their events so politicians can dig in and smile for the cameras.

At One Seaport, the event with the stages and live models, Walsh took the ceremonial digging a bit further by climbing into the cab of a mechanical excavator and unearthing a few shovelfuls of fresh mud.

His predecessor, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, once swung a wrecking ball at an event in the Financial District. At first, he missed the target — a faux wall with a big X on it — and instead struck a cloth sign made for the event. But eventually the mayor hit the mark.

The developers of One Seaport wanted an event to match the magnitude of their project, said Alexandra Hynes, an executive at 44 Communications who planned the ceremony. The development will create a pair of 22-story apartment towers and a few dozen retail stores and restaurants.


"It was such fun news that we wanted the event to have some life to it," said Hynes, the daughter of the project's developer, John B. Hynes III. "It had to be memorable and fashionable, so people could get a sense of the creativity behind the project."

Overall, Hynes worked with 10 vendors over five weeks. An opening number was provided by Berklee College of Music students; beverages came from the Coffee Trike; tarts and cookies were supplied by Flour, a local bakery. Hynes also worked with a local casting agent, Maria Woods, to provide models who posed behind black curtains arranged around the podium.

"My big fear was the curtains wouldn't drop," Hynes said. "But it all worked and people really seemed to enjoy themselves."

Just a week later, she arranged another groundbreaking for a much different project: the construction of Our Lady of Good Voyage chapel in the Seaport for the Archdiocese of Boston.

During the speaking ceremony, Cardinal Sean O'Malley provided guests with a more traditional window on the ceremonial groundbreaking. There were no models or grand unveilings, just a prayer for the job that lay ahead.

"We are gathered here today to ask God's blessing for the success of the work that is about to begin on this land," he said.


Then O'Malley and several public officials went outside, grabbed silver-tipped shovels, and dug into a pile of dirt.

Casey Ross can be reached
at cross@ globe.com.