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Was Charlie Baker just trying to be a good neighbor?

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The most controversial sliver of the State House lawn.

Walking past the statues of John F. Kennedy and Henry Cabot Lodge on the State House grounds, you can't help but feel the history of the Commonwealth.

The statue of Henry Cabot Lodge on the State House grounds sits in front of the 25 Beacon St. project.

That is until I arrived at the most controversial sliver of the Capitol grounds, a section of the south lawn that requires a park ranger escort and that up until last week seemed more like a forgotten corner of someone's unattended backyard overgrown with weeds.

Now I see why Governor Charlie Baker thought it might be OK to allow the developers next door to take over a chunk of the State House lawn for a luxury condo complex made up of three historic buildings that once served as the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Church.


Perhaps the governor was just trying to be a good neighbor. The developers, Charles Reed and Jean Abouhamad, have wanted since the Patrick administration to negotiate easements on the abutting State House property.

The project is so complicated that just to put up temporary scaffolding on the side facing the State House requires an act of the Legislature.

The governor slipped the condo proposal into an outside section of the budget earlier this month, and my colleague Frank Phillips deliciously unearthed the item last week, drawing the ire of Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

The governor thought the commission had blessed the idea of giving a permanent easement to the developers, which would allow them to install window wells and convert some basement units into livable space that are being marketed as au pair suites.

Galvin said the commission did no such thing. While the group reviewed the project, it did not address whether the state should sell off rights to develop a part of the State House lawn. If the commission had been asked, the answer would have been no.


"Imagine if the Taj Hotel said, 'Give us a piece of the Public Garden,' " Galvin said.

By last Friday, Baker had backed down, acknowledging the commission's opposition to the permanent easement for the 25 Beacon St. property. But the optics were also really bad: Selling hallowed ground — no matter how unsightly — so developers could drive up the value of their ritzy condos priced at $9 million to $11 million. It would have been perfect material for Democrats creating an anti-Baker campaign ad in 2018.

So now what?

Developers want to buy two parking spaces (shown here) the state doesn’t use.

Well, the condo legislation isn't entirely going away, and the Legislature could decide its fate by Sunday. While Baker no longer supports a permanent easement, Galvin is fine with the developers's other asks. They continue to seek a temporary easement for crews to get access to the State House lawn so scaffolding can be put up for construction.

The developers also would like to purchase two parking spaces that sit beyond the State House grounds. The Commonwealth hasn't used those spots in years, and with parking at a premium in Beacon Hill, those spaces could fetch $1 million or more, money that would go into a fund to maintain the State House grounds.

Developers still need a temporary easement to finish the 25 Beacon St. condo project.

PR guru Larry Rasky, who is representing the developers, told me they want to pursue the other aspects of the legislation and will regroup on whether to seek the permanent easement.


"There is no sleight of hand here," Rasky said. "There is certainly a desire on behalf of the developers to respect the Massachusetts Historical Commission and everyone in the process. Obviously, we have some work to do still."

I don't have a problem with the state helping Rasky's clients finish their project — as long as the permanent easement remains off the table. Everything else seems reasonable.

But what gets me is how much time state officials have already spent on this. Not only have lawyers within the House, Senate, and governor's office toiled over the details — so have Baker, House Speaker Bob DeLeo, and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who recently did the same walk-through I did of the weedy patch in question.

Enough. The Big Three have done their part being a good neighbor. It's time to get back to the real business of Beacon Hill.

Governor Charlie Baker previously sought to sell the right to develop a sliver of the State House lawn. He has since backed off from the proposal.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.