Business & Tech

Massport clears way for 1,000-room South Boston hotel

Elkus Manfredi Architects
Omni’s $550 million project will feature two 20-story towers; meeting, retail and restaurant space; a spa; and possibly an ice rink.

A massive new hotel complex — with more than 1,000 rooms, a sprawling ballroom, and potentially a skating rink — is coming to the center of the South Boston Waterfront.

The hotel, approved Thursday by the Massachusetts Port Authority’s board, will be the Seaport’s largest, located at the corner of D and Summer streets, across from the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

Thursday’s vote authorizes the authority to enter into a development agreement and ground lease with Omni Hotels & Resorts, whose $550 million project will feature two 20-story towers, 120,000 square feet of meeting space, 40,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and an 8,500-square-foot spa and fitness center.

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“Omni really wants to make this a destination,” Massport chief executive Thomas Glynn said. “They really want to make a statement and do something that is creative on the design front and connects with the city’s identity. . . . They want the hotel to be successful 365 days a year, not just the 220 days when there’s a convention.”

The project, billed as a powerful magnet for conventioneers and tourists, has been in the works for more than two years. But it suffered a big setback in April 2015, when Governor Charlie Baker decided to put a proposed expansion of the convention center on hold.

That prompted Massport to scale back its ambitions to redevelop its 2.1-acre lot on the corner, significantly reducing the minimum specifications for the hotel that could be built there. Six development teams, including three that were in the running for the bigger project, then submitted plans for the hotel site.

By last fall, Massport had narrowed the field down to one: the Omni project. Omni, a Texas-based hotel operator, studied the potential demand and decided to go with a larger-scale hotel, after all.

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The hotel’s roughly 25,000-square-foot main ballroom will be the second-largest in the city, the developers said. Only a 40,000-square-foot space in the convention center across the street will be bigger. The hotel will also feature indoor and outdoor pools and a deck above street level that could support a winter skating rink.

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Construction on the 800,000-square-foot project is scheduled to begin in 2018, and the hotel is expected to open by early 2021. The complex will be connected to the convention center via a tunnel, most of which was built as part of a reconstruction of Summer Street years ago.

Omni is working with a number of local partners on the project, including developer Davis Cos. and hotelier Robin Brown. The team includes a group of local minority investors; Massport’s scoring criteria encouraged minority participation in the bids. Another unusual feature: Six local nonprofits are expected to receive a portion of the hotel’s profits.

Massport officials said the authority will be paid about $100 million over the course of the 90-year hotel lease, although the payments will ramp up in the first years of the lease. The developers said they are paying full market value for the land and are not receiving any public subsidy.

Massport and the developers have been working on the deal’s details for months. One of the last sticking points was figuring out how to best integrate the hotel with a garage that Massport plans to build next door.

Omni says its hotel complex, with meeting and retail space, a spa, and possibly an ice rink, will itself be a destination.
Elkus Manfredi Architects
Omni says its hotel complex, with meeting and retail space, a spa, and possibly an ice rink, will itself be a destination.

The deal’s approval came as a big relief to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. Its executive director, David M. Gibbons, said the MCCA has been losing bookings because it can’t offer enough hotel rooms within walking distance of the South Boston convention complex. Meeting planners, he said, prefer not to put conventioneers on shuttles to hotels in the Back Bay, a regular occurrence today.

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“The lack of proximate hotels was starting to affect our bookings,” Gibbons said. “You didn’t come to Boston to sit in the back of a bus on Kneeland Street, saying, ‘Where am I?’ . . . This will give us the opportunity to change that decline into an incline.”

The project’s lead architectural firm is Elkus Manfredi Architects. Cofounder Howard Elkus, who drove the project’s design, died April 1 at age 78.

Jonathan Davis, chief executive of the Davis Cos., said the project will play a critical role in the next phase of South Boston Waterfront development by enlivening a dead zone at a high-profile intersection.

Omni plans to build a place that will offer a unique visitor experience, Davis said, not a run-of-the-mill convention center hotel.

“That section of Summer Street is very static, it’s dead,” Davis said. “This is really going to animate the streetscape there.”

The new hotel complex will sit across the street from the convention center on unused Massport land.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2014
The new hotel complex will sit across the street from the convention center on unused Massport land.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.