A dilapidated garage in the heart of Boston’s Financial District has suddenly emerged as the hottest spot in the city’s booming real estate market.
Eight developers have filed proposals for a skyscraper, several of which would be nearly as tall as the city’s largest, the Hancock Tower, on the site of a city-owned parking garage that is now closed. The competitors include a who’s who of local and national developers, a measure of how strong Boston’s real estate market has become.
If approved, the Winthrop Square project would add another tower to the fast-changing Boston skyline. Already, five towers over 600 feet are proposed or are being built while other large complexes are under development downtown.
Millennium Partners, which developed several prominent properties in Boston, is proposing a 750-foot tower that from some angles would look like a slender version of the Hancock and would have a mix of offices and residences. Entrepreneur Steven Belkin, who previously tried but failed to build an even bigger skyscraper on the Winthrop Square site, is back with a proposed 54-story colossus of some 1.5 million square feet.
Boston developer Joseph Fallon, the builder behind Fan Pier in the Innovation District, has submitted a bid for a two-building residential complex, with a mix of condo and rental units, that would reach 700 feet. Lend Lease Development, a major builder of properties around the world, has teamed up with local developer Ori Ron of the Hudson Group North America to propose a 750-foot, 68-story mixed-use tower.
Among the tallest is the 780-foot tower from former Boston Redevelopment Authority director Thomas O’Brien that would be just shy of the Hancock’s height. However, in a departure, O’Brien would put the tower on property across the street from the garage and turn the city site into a public plaza surrounded by a new St. Anthony Shrine Church, a new friary and ministry center for the Franciscans friars, and a new public school. O’Brien’s company would provide $25 million to build the school, then permanently lease the land back to the city, according to its proposal.
While many of the proposals call for office space in the towers, all have at least some residential component, in keeping with city officials’ desire to bring more nighttime activity to the downtown district.
Accordia Partners, for example, wants to build a 56-story glass tower with a Meridien hotel and condos, and Lincoln Property Co. has suggested a 45-story building that would primarily be office space with a hotel and some condos. And Trinity Financial, the Boston development company led by James Keefe, is looking to build a 51-story tower with a 276-room hotel, 328 luxury rentals, and 261 luxury condos.
The competition is the second act in a process started nearly a decade ago by then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who ushered a call to the city’s development community to pitch an iconic building. Menino had high hopes to turn Winthrop Square into a signature property, a singular force that could transform the city’s skyline. And for a time the project was cheekily dubbed “Tommy’s Tower.”
But only Belkin answered that call, in 2006 proposing an audacious 1,000-foot-tower with a riveting design by celebrated architect Renzo Piano. That proposal ran into trouble with federal aviation officials, who fretted the height would interfere with air traffic over Boston, while the stalling economy made it harder to finance. Belkin since regrouped, drawing up plans for a scaled-back tower. Then in February, Mayor Martin Walsh jump-started the competition with a new call to have the city garage redeveloped.
Belkin recently hired prominent Boston developer Justin Krebs to shepherd the project. Belkin’s latest plan includes 700,000 square feet of offices, along with a mix of rental apartments and condos developed with national home builder Toll Brothers.
And despite being just one of eight bidders, Belkin remains a key player in the sweepstakes. The Winthrop garage site is oddly shaped and wedged between two buildings, making it difficult to use as a conventional building site. But Belkin, chairman and founder of credit card and travel companies under the Trans National Group umbrella, owns a neighboring building, 133 Federal St., that when combined with the garage land would make for a more straightforward building project.
“In a way, it’s surprising that as many showed up as they did, given that Belkin still controls as an important chess piece,” said Alex Krieger, principal at the Boston office of architectural firm NBBJ and a professor of urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
The proposals were filed this week with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Officials are expected to review the proposals within the next several weeks to decide whether to narrow the field of entrants. They would then invite the remaining contenders to detail their proposals for the city.
Cloud-busting skyscrapers were unusual back in 2006, but they are not so strange now. Richard Friedman of Carpenter & Co. is building a 700-foot tower at the edge of the Christian Science Plaza, and Millennium Partners is putting up a 625-foot condo tower on the block where the flagship Filene’s store used to be, in Downtown Crossing.
Millennium would top that project, just a few blocks away, if it wins the contest for Winthrop Square. The New York company is proposing a 740-foot tower for the garage property — 870,000 square feet that would largely be a mix of residential and office spaces.
The Financial District has been slower to recover from the recession than the Back Bay, but promising tech firms have filled up many of the spaces left vacant by contractions in the legal and financial sectors. Brokerage Transwestern RBJ noted last week that the vacancy rate in the Financial District has dropped to 10 percent in recent months, its healthiest level since 2008. Belkin’s latest proposal offers a nod to this tech contingent, including a 21,500-square-foot “Entrepreneur Innovation Center.”
Nick Martin, a spokesman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, declined to comment about the developers’ filings, other than to say city officials are “very satisfied with the level of response we received.”