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Boston, Chiofaro stalled over Harbor Garage project

Financial backers are meeting with BRA

Don Chiofaro’s most recent plan for the site calls for a 600-foot tower and a second, slightly shorter one (seen at center).KOHN PEDERSEN FOX ASSOCIATES

Boston officials said Tuesday that they have hit an impasse with developer Don Chiofaro about his proposal to build two skyscrapers on the downtown waterfront and have begun to negotiate directly with his financial backers.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is in “active conversations” with Prudential Real Estate Investors, which owns a majority stake in the controversial Harbor Garage project next to the New England Aquarium, BRA director Brian Golden said in a letter to neighbors and nearby civic leaders.

“We’re struggling to arrive at a consensus,” Golden added in an interview.

Prudential executives are expected to meet with Mayor Martin J. Walsh about the project this week, according to people with knowledge of the meeting.

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It’s unclear what the turn of events means for Chiofaro, who through a spokeswoman declined to comment. He and Prudential bought the property in 2007 for $153 million.

The colorful developer — best known for building International Place nearby — has labored for nearly eight years to build a grand complex on the site of the aging garage on Atlantic Avenue. While never officially submitting a development application to City Hall, he has informally floated various iterations that showed towers as high as 780 feet.

But Chiofaro clashed with former mayor Thomas M. Menino, and the project stalled. When Walsh took office in 2014, he signaled support for a signature building on the site, so long as it also provided open space and access to the waterfront.

Since then, Chiofaro has released a revised version of a $1 billion complex of two slightly shorter buildings, with a glass atrium on the ground level to connect the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway with Boston Harbor.

But for months the BRA and Chiofaro have been deadlocked over just how big the project should be. In June, the city proposed new zoning for the property that would permit a 900,000-square-foot complex and a building of up to 600 feet tall — far more than is allowed under current rules but less than what the developer sought. Chiofaro pushed back, telling city officials that at this size, the project would not make economic sense.

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In September, the Globe reported that Chiofaro had floated with city officials the idea of receiving a tax break because at the proposed size, the project would have a $30 million shortfall. Golden said the BRA has since been unable to reach a deal with Chiofaro.

“We feel that 900,000 and 600 feet is a reasonable way forward. The developer disagrees,” Golden said.

Enter Prudential, which controls nearly all of the ownership of the property. In recent weeks, city officials and the insurance giant have begun talking about the economics of the deal, Golden said.

“Them hearing from us and us hearing from them might be helpful,” he said. “It may not change things, but we think it’s a worthwhile exercise.”

Typically, developers such as Chiofaro act as a point man for institutional investors, steering big projects through neighborhood meetings and permitting at City Hall. But sometimes, Golden noted, the BRA sits down with the big money, too, especially on complex projects such as this one.

“Development can be a question of art more than science,” Golden said. “Having the right people at the table attempting to understand each other can bear fruit.”

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A spokesman for Prudential declined to comment.

For years, Chiofaro feuded with Menino; he has not built anything in Boston since International Place opened in 1987. His recent proposal for the Harbor Garage would put a second pair of iconic towers on the downtown skyline.

But the plan has also stirred stiff opposition. The aquarium has complained to City Hall that construction would wipe out parking for its visitors for several years. And residents of the Harbor Towers condominium complex contend the massive project would overwhelm an already crowded spot.

Lee Kozol, chairman of a committee of Harbor Towers residents tracking the project, welcomed Prudential’s involvement.

“We believe a more creative and cooperative developer could reconcile economic feasibility with adherence to the flexible state law that protects public access to the waterfront,” he said. “We are encouraged to hear that the city has reached out to Prudential.”

Golden said there is no sign that Prudential is planning to replace Chiofaro or shelve the project. The meetings are mainly to help all sides understand one another and perhaps find a compromise.

“There’s no harm in sitting down with the primary owner of the property and listening,” he said. “That’s all that’s going on.”

The move also comes amid growing concern from civic leaders along the waterfront that the city has largely negotiated with Chiofaro in private. In Nov. 11, members of a citizens committee advising the city on a new Municipal Harbor Plan — which will set guidelines for development for that section of the waterfront — sent Golden a letter asking why 14 of their meetings have been canceled this year. Many of those cancellations came as talks over the Harbor Garage project dragged on.

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Golden said it made little sense to have the citizens group develop zoning rules for the Harbor Garage before the city had a better idea of what was economically feasible. But he scheduled a meeting Wednesday to talk with committee members about their concerns.

Even if the city and Chiofaro can hash out the economics of the Harbor Garage, broader concerns about the waterfront need to be addressed, said Julie Wormser, executive director of The Boston Harbor Association, which advocates for public access to the waterfront. The planning process ought to examine how any development will improve access, she said, and how it would deal with rising sea levels.

“There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. Not just the volume and mass of this particular project,” Wormser said. “We don’t think it’s appropriate to negotiate one project in a vacuum.”

Related reading:

Opinion | Gerald W. Blakeley Jr.: The Harbor Garage must go


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.