How unloved City Hall Plaza could come to life
The owners of TD Garden have won a bid to remake Boston’s City Hall Plaza, proposing to transform the little-loved, windswept brick expanse at the heart of the city into a bustling year-round hub of arts, food, and leisure.
Delaware North Cos. was tapped for the project Thursday by the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, beating out two competitors. The company said in its bid it was willing to invest “upwards of $15 million” in improvements and attractions.
While its plans are conceptual and will require public input and further approval from the city, Delaware North made numerous suggestions for the plaza, including:
■ An “iconic” observation wheel, up to 200 feet high and featuring 42 climate-controlled gondolas.
■ A “casual cool” restaurant featuring local ingredients in a temporary two-story building surrounded by outdoor eating and beer garden areas. Nearby, a ground-level “#BOSTON” sign would become “an instant landmark . . . the ultimate new Boston selfie station.”
■ An “urban beach” area would be set up in summer, replete with sand, beach chairs, umbrellas, and cabanas.
■ A winter garden and ice skating venue, featuring “cozy warming huts,” hot cocoa stations, and — why not? — curling.
■ Additional concert series that would build on the success of the popular Boston Calling festivals.
■ A series of interactive art installations, inspired by the glow-in-the-dark “Impulse” seesaws in Montreal that also play music.
■ Semi-permanent food and coffee stalls near the Government Center MBTA station.
Many of the attractions Delaware North has proposed would be free; others would include a fee.
Delaware North, based in Buffalo, N.Y., and chaired by Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, is a longtime operator of sports venues, parks, casinos, concessions, resorts, and restaurants, among other ventures. It runs the famed ice rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City, for example.
The company is embroiled in a trademark fight with the US National Park Service over ownership of many of the iconic names associated with Yosemite National Park, where Delaware North ran lodging and concession operations until this year.
In Boston, the company now has a three-year contract with the city, one piece of a broader initiative by Walsh’s administration dubbed “Rethink City Hall.”
Many details of the plan remain fuzzy, especially its financing.
In its submission, Delaware North said it envisioned paying an unspecified fee — after recovering its initial investment in building out the plaza. It said the installation would result in “significant annual cash flow to the city.” But the company cautioned that some components of its plan would only be financially viable if the city commits beyond the three-year contract.
The company and city officials vowed that no public money would be used for the enhancements and said they were working out a revenue-sharing deal. Delaware North also said it will seek corporate partnerships to offset some costs.
Past attempts to overhaul the plaza have fizzled, but Walsh has tried to brighten it, ordering the installation of an artificial “front lawn” last summer and unveiling a plan to illuminate City Hall’s dreary exterior. Officials and Delaware North executives said major improvements to the under-used plaza, originally intended to make City Hall the focus of the area, are long overdue.
“Come on, it’s time,” said Charlie Jacobs, the son of Jeremy Jacobs and chief executive of Delaware North’s Boston operations. “We need to put our best foot forward and make City Hall Plaza an iconic destination that represents what’s best about Boston.”
Jacobs said his company hoped to partner with various groups in the city and would solicit feedback to refine its plans.
Delaware North tentatively plans to begin interim programming this summer, in between the Boston Calling concerts. Construction is expected to start on the winter garden facilities in October, including the temporary restaurant structure. If approved and financed, the signature observation wheel likely wouldn’t begin operations until next spring, Delaware North said in its proposal.
Boston officials acknowledged that while the plaza has occasionally attracted massive crowds for one-off events — whether Celtics championship celebrations in the 1980s or the recent Boston Calling concerts — no one has succeeded in making the area a steady draw.
“We just haven’t quite figured out what the sweet spot is,” said Pat Brophy, Walsh’s chief of operations. “People walk around here all the time, they go to Faneuil Hall and follow the Freedom Trail, and then they get to this wide expanse of space and it’s just dead.”
Brophy said the city chose Delaware North’s bid based on the company’s experience and strong finances.
“They have an enormous amount of capital, and a very appealing concept,” he said.
Delaware North beat out two other experienced companies: The Anthem Group, a Boston-based events and hospitality company that submitted a similar plan for a winter garden, and Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, a New York firm known for its popular remake of Bryant Park in Manhattan. Anthem Group declined to comment.
Ted Furst, who runs Biederman’s Boston office, said his company was disappointed and hoped Delaware North would amplify the civic nature of the plaza.
“It’s the front lawn of Boston, and it needs to be open to all, no matter what economic class you’re from or what age you are,” Furst said.
He also questions some elements of Delaware North’s plans, especially the observation wheel, which he said may take more than three years to break even.
“For every 10 Ferris wheels that are proposed, probably one is actually built,” he said. “They’re very costly, and I’m not sure the city will embrace such a huge structure.”