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Looking to jump-start delayed project, Chiofaro scales back

It’s likely to be several months, at least, before developer Don Chiofaro files specific plans with the BRA.
It’s likely to be several months, at least, before developer Don Chiofaro files specific plans with the BRA.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Hoping to jump-start a long-delayed project, developer Don Chiofaro is ready to dial back his ambition and build a tower nearly one-third smaller than the one he first proposed for a site next to the New England Aquarium.

Chiofaro told the Globe that he’ll push forward with his bid to put a skyscraper on the site of the Harbor Garage, and to do it within proposed zoning rules that he fought for years to loosen without success. It would still be a billion-dollar-plus project, a bookend to the International Place towers he built in the 1980s, but not quite as grand as he envisioned.

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“We’re going to try as hard as we can to take what we’re dealt and do something great,” he said in an interview on Friday.

Chiofaro had been quiet since city officials said in January that they would not permit a building with more than 900,000 square feet or taller than 600 feet. Now they’re putting the final touches on zoning rules for the downtown waterfront, with a goal to have a plan approved in November.

A building with 900,000 square feet would still be among the largest constructed in Boston’s current boom, but it would be smaller than the two-tower, 1.3 million-square-foot complex Chiofaro had been floating, or the 1.1 million-square-foot version he had offered late last year.

A smaller tower would mean fewer condos and hotel rooms and less office space to generate income for the developer and investors. Chiofaro said he needs to maximize income to justify closing the lucrative 1,400-space parking garage, replacing it underground, and opening up a section of waterfront that has long been walled off at the street.

The economics of an effort like that are “a jigsaw puzzle,” Chiofaro said, one that he freely admits he hasn’t yet figured out.

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“The truth is we don’t know whether and when we can make it work at 900,000 square feet,” he said. “But if that’s the hand we’re dealt, we’re damn sure going to try.”

Even at that size, he’s likely to face pushback.

The aquarium has emerged as an influential opponent of Chiofaro’s plans, pushing for a smaller project that still redevelops the old garage but that would be less disruptive to its business during construction. Late Friday, a spokesman took a wait-and-see approach to Chiofaro’s newest pitch.

“While the aquarium welcomes any step in the right direction, we have yet to see any project specifics,” said spokesman Tony LaCasse. “We look forward to hearing more details in the future.”

Chiofaro’s neighbors at the Harbor Towers high-rise condominiums, many of whom have also long fought the project, remained opposed both to the tower and the BRA zoning that would enable it.

“This lot coverage, volume, and height radically violate the letter and spirit of the state law protecting public access to the waterfront,” said Lee Kozol, chief of the Harbor Towers Garage Committee. “We continue to hope the developer will work with the aquarium and us to achieve something worthy of the location.”

Rich McGuinness, who spearheads waterfront planning at the BRA, said that after 3½ years, the authority is down to “fine-tuning” on the harbor plan. While there are two more public hearings scheduled, he did not envision changes to anything as contentious as height on the Harbor Garage.

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“We support a 600-foot building here because we think this area can support that level of height,” he said. “We’re setting entitlements there for something to happen, to encourage improvements along the waterfront.”

And if that zoning passes, Chiofaro will get right to work designing a project that fits it, he said. Over the past decade, he said, he has commissioned 99 miniature models of building designs and spent $8 million on his effort. But after the BRA capped the project in January, he took a breather until plans are finalized.

He’s still envisioning a mix of condos, offices, and a hotel above 70,000 square feet of retail space. But the details remain flexible, depending on the market, the specifics of the building, and the broader economy.

“We will also have to do some deep soul-searching, to say nothing of intense market scrutiny and significant design work, to explore what the possibilities are,” he said.

It’s likely to be several months, at least, before Chiofaro can file specific plans with the BRA. Then, given a year or more for permitting, construction wouldn’t start until 2018, at the earliest.

That raises the question of whether Chiofaro will be able to launch the project in the current hot real estate cycle, or have to wait until the next one. But the developer said he can’t worry about timing.

“It’s impossible to plan perfectly,” he said. “Our objective is to get what we can get, when we can get it.”

Even if that means settling for a less-than-giant tower.

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