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BRA outlines vision for Winthrop Square garage

The Winthrop Square garage.
The Winthrop Square garage.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

After years of false starts, Boston officials said they will choose a developer to build a skyscraper on the site of a municipal garage in June, expecting it will be “one of the most notable structures” on the city skyline.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority on Wednesday issued a formal request for proposals for the Winthrop Square Garage, giving developers six weeks to pitch an “iconic,” “innovative” tower in the Financial District. The agency hopes to have a permit issued for the project by the end of the year.

The garage was first targeted for redevelopment a decade ago by then-mayor Thomas M. Menino, who called for a 1,000-foot tower on the site. Current guidelines would limit a tower to the 700-foot range.


The 53-page document outlines the BRA’s priorities for the site, including a “substantial” contribution to the skyline, a “decidedly civic character” at the street level, observation deck, and even a Hubway station.

“We’re looking for something that epitomizes the future of downtown Boston,” said Ed O’Donnell, BRA director of real estate.

A year ago, the city received interest from eight major development firms. The BRA expects those firms — and potentially more — to submit formal proposals.

Firms in the mix include Millennium Partners, developer of the nearby Millennium Tower condo project in Downtown Crossing, which pitched a 750-foot glass tower, and entrepreneur Steve Belkin, who owns the property adjacent to the garage on Federal Street, which he would combine into one larger building site.

Former BRA director Tom O’Brien’s HYM Investment Group proposed a complicated package in which he would build a 780-foot tower across the street while turning the city site into a plaza and new school and St. Anthony Shrine church.

A 2014 aerial view showed the Winthrop Square Garage dwarfed by its taller neighbors.
A 2014 aerial view showed the Winthrop Square Garage dwarfed by its taller neighbors.David L. Ryan/Globe staff

Veteran Boston developer Joe Fallon proposed two residential towers, while global construction firm Lend Lease Development pitched a 750-foot, 68-story mixed-use tower. Other companies that expressed interest included Accordia Partners, Lincoln Property Co., and Trinity Financial.


However, the city notes that because of the site’s proximity to Logan airport, the Federal Aviation Administration generally limits buildings in the area to 725 feet. Even 725 feet would be the tallest building in the Financial District.

Beyond a pop on the skyline, the BRA is looking for street life in Winthrop Square. The request for proposals asks for a building that is open to passersby, with public space, “a comfortable and lively pedestrian and retail environment.”

Higher up, the city wants publicly-accessible areas, including an observation deck with 360-degree views.

Once it chooses the winner in June, the BRA expects to negotiate financial terms, with proceeds of a sale or lease — probably in the tens of millions of dollars — going to the city budget, per an agreement reached last year with the City Council.

Still, selecting a developer is no guarantee that the tower will actually get built any time soon.

O’Donnell last month noted that “we’re closer to the end of this [real estate] cycle than the beginning.” Recently several other large office proposals in the city have struggled to find a main tenant big enough to launch construction. Financing, too, could become a challenge if the global economy cools or interest rates rise.

But even if the office market stalls, all the plans filed last year included residential components, which have generally performed well in downtown Boston. Some also had hotels.


And regardless of when ground might break, BRA officials say they want a proposal that can withstand economic cycles, and a building that will evolve with the city.

“We want a building that can be built today and can thrive for a long time,” said chief BRA planner Sara Myerson. “A truly great building for decades to come.”

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