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Developers are showing new interest in Mass. Pike air rights project

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The Columbus Center project, which was slated to be built over this stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike in the South End, could be revived.Dina Rudick

A once controversial but now dormant development over the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston may be stirring again.

At least two major developers are exploring the idea of reviving Columbus Center, the 10-acre megaproject from the 2000s to cover the highway between the Back Bay and the South End. These developers have separately approached the Massachusetts Department of Transportation about Columbus Center, a state official said Monday.

\It's not clear who, exactly, is in the mix. A MassDOT spokeswoman said the agency has had "informal conversations with a couple of developers" about reopening the project, but would not identify the developers.


However, Boston-based Trinity Financial confirmed it has hired a consultant to broach the topic with residents of the area.

The interest level is very preliminary, so it's unclear whether any of the developers would pursue something on the scale of the original Columbus Center proposal, which included blocks of buildings and a 35-story tower built on decks over the turnpike and several adjacent lots east of Clarendon Street.

Developer WinnCompanies and its main financier pulled the plug on the $800 million project in 2010 after it became economically infeasible.

MassDOT, which controls the sites, hasn't decided whether to revive the project, which would allow it to solicit proposals from developers. The original plan called for building on four separate parcels that ran from Clarendon to Arlington streets. Any approvals are months, if not years, away.

But experts say the mere fact that Columbus Center, left for dead six years ago amid neighborhood opposition and the economic downturn, is being reconsidered speaks to the strength of the real estate market in Boston and the potential many still see for building over the turnpike.

"We would be very pleased if it was back on the table," said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. "This could knit together the Back Bay and South End at a critical juncture. I think it would be a home run."


Just west of the Columbus Center location Boston Properties is proposing a large mixed-use project over and around the Back Bay MBTA Station, and a little farther down the highway John Rosenthal is nearing the start of the long-stalled Fenway Center complex.

Trinity Financial, which focuses on mixed-income housing developments, began exploring Columbus Center earlier this year when it began considering its next big projects, said its managing director, Kenan Bigby.

The firm is wrapping up construction of One Canal, an apartment building on former Big Dig land near North Station, and had bid unsuccessfully for a MassDOT air-rights parcel near the corner of Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue.

"We don't have anything specific in mind," Bigby said of Columbus Center. "It's just conversations at this point," adding that his company is waiting to take its cue from state transportation officials.

Earlier this year, Trinity hired veteran development consultant Randi Lathrop to meet with neighborhood groups in the South End and gauge reaction.

One person Lathrop talked with is Betsy Hall, president of the nearby Ellis South End Neighborhood Association. Though many residents had opposed the earlier Columbus Center project, Hall said she would be open to something more modest.

"I think the nature of Columbus Center being so huge is what put many of us off," Hall said Monday.

"I do like the idea of connecting the South End more to the Back Bay. If you could do that — with something modest in scale and more appropriate for the neighborhood — it would change the complexion of the city."


The hard part, development experts say, is the sheer expense of a vast deck over the six-lane highway and rail tracks, which would probably force developers to build a larger project. Despite many efforts, there hasn't been a successful air-rights development over the turnpike since Copley Place in the 1970s.

That project received public subsidies to pay for the deck that Mainzer-Cohen said have been paid back by tax revenue generated by the giant development. She said the government should consider subsidizing Columbus Center, too.

"Think about what Columbus Center could have been if the state had done that 15 years ago," she said. "It's a lost opportunity."

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