The developer from New York came to the old-school Boston jewelers with a deal: Help me rezone the block we share, in the heart of Downtown Crossing. I’ll pay you for your trouble.
If the plan worked, it would have eased the path of one of Boston’s tallest proposed towers through the city’s notoriously thorny zoning process and shielded the project from time-consuming court fights with well-heeled neighbors.
It also could have helped a century-old institution spruce itself up for a new age.
But they couldn’t work out a deal. So now the developer of the 59-story building at One Bromfield is pushing ahead without the help of the jewelers next door, while its opponents in a neighboring condo tower are considering potential lawsuits.
The quiet negotiations that went on for a year-and-a-half between the developer, Midwood, and the Boston Jewelers Exchange Building highlight the complexity of developing tight sites in downtown Boston and of pushing big projects through the city’s complex zoning review.
The One Bromfield project also pits the type of luxury high-rise that’s remaking Downtown Crossing against an institution that echoes the bygone era of a shopping district that’s the closest thing Boston has to a Main Street.
Midwood, which has built large projects in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., had been eyeing the corner of Bromfield and Washington streets since the mid-1990s, when it bought several buildings there.
“It was clear this was a location that would one day support high-density development,” said its president, John Usdan.
By 18 months ago, with Millennium Tower rising across the street on the old Filene’s block, that day had come. Midwood moved forward with plans for a 705-foot tower of condos and apartments, but it wanted a little help — from the owners of the eight-story building next door.
Usdan approached the trustees of the Jewelers Exchange Building about joining Midwood in a Planned Development Area, or PDA. This city process allows developers to consolidate the many reviews they must undergo; most importantly, they can avoid going before the Zoning Board of Appeals, which typically rules on variances for projects as small as a single-family house, and can be a crucial chokepoint if there are opponents of a development.
Land-use experts say that opting for a PDA is a smart move for any complex project, for several reasons. But what makes them really attractive, said Larry DiCara, a real estate attorney at Nixon Peabody, is that they’re “legally bulletproof.”
“People can sue but the likelihood of their prevailing is almost zero,” DiCara said. “I would always advise to do a PDA if you can.”
But to qualify for a PDA, the project must be at least 1 acre in size. Midwood’s site is about half that. Adding the Jewelers Exchange property would have given them a big enough plot.
So Midwood asked the Jewelers Exchange to join a PDA, Exchange trustees and others familiar with the negotiations said. The jewelers building, built in 1922, would have stayed put. Essentially, Midwood would have bought the acreage for a PDA, paying the jewelers for their costs and trouble.
While unusual, such a deal is not unheard of, said Matt Kiefer, a land use lawyer at Goulston & Storrs who several years ago engineered a similar PDA for the nearby Kensington apartment building. “It’s creative,” he said. “But it’s been done before.”
The jewelers hired experts for studies and cost estimates. The two sides went back and forth, but they were too far apart on price. Neither would specify the dollars involved. But Jay Shoostine, owner of Boston Estate Buyers and a Jewelers Exchange trustee, said the difference was “X and 10X.”
“We’re looking for something fair and reasonable,” Shoostine said. “We’re not looking to be taken advantage of.”
So last week, Midwood moved on, applying for a conventional city review that will include going before the Zoning Board of Appeals.
All Usdan, the Midwood president, would say about the negotiation was “things did not work out.”
The Jewelers Exchange, with its Art Deco lobby and upstairs hallways lined by small shops, is a throwback. It holds about 150 businesses — from dealers to diamond-cutters — some of which have been there for generations. Most own their own shops.
The ownership arrangement can make things a bit unwieldy, said trustee Sam Glattstein. But it also gives the building staying power — the jewelers can’t just be swept out.
“We’ve been here through recessions and wars and ups and downs of the neighborhood,” said Glattstein, whose father opened Northern Gem Corp. in the 1950s. “This place is something of an institution.”
The 59-story One Bromfield would loom above the Jewelers Exchange and potentially block natural light, which can be valuable if you’re in the diamond business. But the trustees say they’re not opposed to the tower itself. It would be a beautiful building, Glattstein said, and help improve the neighborhood.
Some neighbors are less sanguine. Residents of 45 Province St., a 32-story condo tower, said they have deep worries about One Bromfield. Their biggest concern, said trustee Doug Fiebelkorn, is traffic. Midwood’s proposal would create a driveway off a small nearby alley and could even result in redirecting traffic down Bromfield toward Washington Street.
Piling 419 apartments and condos into such tight quarters, Fiebelkorn said, would be bound to make getting around even harder.
“It’s already not good,” he said. “And you’re like ‘Wow. How’s this going to work?’ ”
Fiebelkorn said 45 Province residents have not decided if they will sue. They’re still hoping to influence the project through the public reviews.
“But I wouldn’t take it off the table,” he said.
Midwood said it has a good traffic plan and is confident any judge would agree.
As for the jewelers, they expect they’ll get along with Midwood eventually, despite not having had the smoothest of introductions.
“No matter what, we’re going to be neighbors,” Glattstein said. “We wish them well. And if they want to go their own way, fine.”Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.