On a summer day in 1979, Norman Leventhal spotted Kevin White across Post Office Square — and made a beeline for the mayor, with an urgent message.
“I can’t stand this garage,’’ Leventhal said of the concrete city-owned structure at the center of the square. “It’s ugly. It’s ugly. We should build a park there.”
Leventhal had an audience with the mayor because he was the rare developer whose ability was as big as his ambition. By 1979, he had already redeveloped much of Government Center and was targeting Post Office Square. White told him to make a proposal about the garage and the city would work with him.
A decade later, the garage came down and, true to his word, Leventhal put the parking underground and laid on top of it a 1.7-acre public park. With its long trellis and ample greenery, the park transformed Post Office Square and instantly became one of the city’s most popular gathering places.
Leventhal’s death at age 97 this week offered an important reminder of the power of public-private partnerships in the development of the city. His example, and the results he achieved, have special relevance to Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics and the ongoing efforts by developers to build massive projects at Government Center, North Station, and on the South Boston Waterfront.
Those who knew Leventhal best described him as a master consensus builder who believed that debates about development were not zero-sum competitions, that there was always a path upon which all parties, including the public at large, could win. The trick, he knew, was finding that path, and keeping everyone on it.
“He had credibility and a great way about him,” said Ron Druker, a friend of Leventhal’s who worked with him on development and civic matters over the years. “He was able to convince people that he was going to do what he was proposing and that he was going to do it in a way that benefited everyone.”
Hosting the Olympic Games was an extremely remote possibility in Leventhal’s time. When he started building, Boston was flat on its back. The downtown was decaying, and businesses and residents were leaving the city. But Leventhal, a Dorchester native, was a believer in Boston, and business associates say his approach to the Olympics would be the same as to his many other complex ventures in the city.
Leventhal was a key player in Boston’s most recent great public-private construction project, the $15 billion Big Dig. As the project took root, he founded the Artery Business Committee, a group of downtown property owners and companies that kept watch on the project and shepherded it through times of political acrimony. He spent much of that time collecting feedback, making sure concerns were dealt with quickly.
“Norman made sure the project delivered on all its aspects,” said developer Tom O’Brien, who was the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s director during several years of Big Dig construction. “He made it a huge civic goal, and it totally changed the city.”
As was the case with demolition of the Post Office Square garage, removing the old elevated artery directly benefited Leventhal’s property interests. Before the Big Dig began, he developed the Rowes Wharf complex, with its signature arch, and then moved into one of its condominiums.
The subsequent establishment of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway dramatically increased the value of Rowes Wharf, and it had the same effect for the broader downtown and its waterfront.
“It unlocked all the development potential in the seaport and at North Station,” said Tom Hynes, chief executive of the real estate firm Colliers International. “Norman never lost sight of how the Big Dig could make the city better.”
Leventhal’s career in development spanned five decades, starting with construction of the Center Plaza complex at Government Center.
As founder and chief executive of Beacon Cos., he later built One Post Office Square, an office tower; renovated South Station; developed the Meridien Hotel; and built the office tower at 75 State St., among other projects.
Real estate executives who worked with him on some of those projects vividly remember his boundless energy and attention to detail. Bill McCall, a founder of the brokerage McCall & Almy, recalled the intensity of Leventhal’s questioning when he represented his buildings as a young broker.
“We used to call them T-shirt meetings because you knew you were going to sweat through your shirt,” McCall said. “He was firm and demanding, but he was never mean.”
Leventhal later spearheaded an effort to improve the barren red brick plaza that surrounds City Hall. In that campaign, he proposed a hotel that would support improvements to the plaza but ran headlong into objections from the General Services Administration, the agency that operates the adjacent John F. Kennedy Federal Building.
In the end, the GSA dug in and Leventhal had to settle for cosmetic improvements at the edge of the plaza.
But the effort he started is now making significant progress, as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority renovates its Government Center Station and city officials consider plans to add trees and grass to break up the hard landscape.
Though he professed to be apolitical, Leventhal had close relationships with public leaders throughout his career. He understood the levers of power and that no development of consequence was possible without community support — the kind of knowledge that would surely apply to Boston’s Olympic ambitions.
“He knew it was important that people felt some ownership in the process,” said Steve Grossman, who was mentored by Leventhal early in his political career.
“It’s easier to say, ‘I’m in charge and this is how it’s going to be.’ But Norman really understood how to bring people together in challenging situations.”