For Steve Belkin, “Tommy’s Tower” seemed like a sure thing — until it wasn’t.
Nearly a decade ago, Belkin was the only one to respond to then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s challenge to build a 1,000-foot tower to symbolize “this city’s greatness.” Belkin proposed to do so on the city-owned Winthrop Square parking garage site. But the Federal Aviation Administration deemed the project too tall for planes flying in and out of Logan Airport, and then the Great Recession waylaid everything.
Now the ultrasuccessful entrepreneur is back at it again, and while he might not be proposing to construct Boston’s tallest building this time around, it might just be the most important.
“Before it was a nice, big tall office building,” said Belkin in an hourlong interview last week in his office by Fenway Park. The new proposal is “so much more reflective of who I am and my passions.”
Belkin has been a serial entrepreneur, and now 68, he has started some 30 businesses, most notably pioneering the concept of affinity-group credit cards. His Trans National Properties is among eight teams vying to redevelop the dilapidated Winthrop garage in downtown Boston.
At the centerpiece of Belkin’s 740-foot office and residential tower is an innovation center, one designed for entrepreneurs and those who aspire to be one. The description itself may be eye-glazing or eye-rolling at a time when everyone claims to be innovative, but to hear Belkin explain it, you feel like he’s onto something big. It’s an idea that could go a long way to break down the walls that divide our business community, ones that keep Kendall Square and Innovation District types from mingling with those in the Financial District.
Instead of a private marble lobby, imagine a glassy galleria about twice the size of Boston innovation center District Hall. There would be meeting spaces and coffee shops, set up to create the much-vaunted “cafe culture” of Silicon Valley, a place where the suits brush up against entrepreneurs in jeans and flip-flops in hopes of launching the next Facebook.
Startups and venture capitalists have been moving into downtown Boston in recent years to escape Kendall’s high rents. Don Chiofaro’s International Place made headlines two years ago when PayPal took over two floors of the stately building, stocking the space with scooters and foosball.
But the newcomers are still hidden, occupying their own floors, interlopers among the bankers and lawyers. Sure, Boston now has the Innovation District, nee the South Boston Waterfront, but in downtown entrepreneurs still feel like the visiting team.
Belkin’s $900 million tower proposal courts the new economy with a 24/7 work-live space: luxury condos on the top, offices in the middle, and retail and public space on the bottom.
The model that sits in his office even has Akamai emblazoned on the top and bottom. Akamai Technologies, based in Cambridge, has been looking for space in Boston. Belkin said he has been in talks with the company but is not sure if the tower would be done in time to accommodate the Internet giant.
To further support startups, Belkin would offer them lower rents and flexible leases at the building he owns next door on Federal Street. The old building would be connected to his new one. His hope is that some of those startups would take off and graduate to the high rent spaces in the new tower.
To pay homage to the region’s entrepreneurial streak, Belkin is also proposing to build a walk of stars (think Hollywood Walk of Fame but for local innovators such as Wang Laboratories founder An Wang), an innovation museum, and outdoor sculpture park.
“We need a main base,” said Belkin of the region’s innovation economy. “People are talking, but we don’t have any place to all come together.
After the ill-fated Tommy’s Tower, most people would have moved on, but Belkin persisted.
“This is my basic nature,” he said. “I say ‘determined;’ my wife says ‘stubborn.’ ”
After hearing Mayor Marty Walsh talk about wanting Boston to be a city of innovation, Belkin got the idea of making that a critical piece of his proposal. Building an entrepreneurial culture also happened to be something he knows a lot about.
There were other lessons from the last outing. Belkin, new to development, has now brought in two key partners: Justin Krebs, a former honcho at Normandy Real Estate Partners, and Toll Brothers, the nationally known residential developer.
But the biggest lesson for Belkin is to build something true to his own self.