A proposal to open a private for-profit social club in the Back Bay is turning into a rich story. As in well-off people lining up for or against a developer’s plan to convert an office building into a posh hangout where the city’s old-money elite can mingle with aspiring leaders from various fields.
Supporters of the idea include Peter Lynch, the legendary former Fidelity Magellan Fund manager; Ron Sargent, who was chief executive of Staples Inc.; nightlife mogul Patrick Lyons; and Cathy Minehan, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Opponents include several residents of the tony neighborhood, among them retired district court judge Brian R. Merrick, former Scientific-Atlanta chief executive Sidney Topol, and former state representative Paul Demakis.
The public dispute over the private club is rare among the ranks of Boston’s typically discreet upper echelon. It began after the Boston Foundation’s board chair, Sandy Edgerley, earlier this year detailed her vision for the 11-story Haddon Hall, which houses offices for doctors and other professionals on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley Street. To some, the for-profit operation would be an incursion into an upscale residential neighborhood where just about everything can be described as “stately.”
Hexagon Properties, a luxury residential development company that Edgerley runs, paid $30 million in January to buy the building. She wants to undertake major renovations to accommodate dining space to seat as many as 356 people, a rooftop terrace, 17 guest rooms, a fitness center, and a cafe.
Edgerley lives in Brookline but maintains an office in Haddon Hall. She and her husband, Paul, a well-known investor and former longtime Bain Capital executive, have helped to raise millions of dollars for local charities.
She hopes to attract about 800 members and charge them about $3,000 or less annually to mingle in a space meant to mentor and cultivate the next generation of leaders.
“The thing that’s bringing people together who are supporting the project is that it’s a bigger idea than just the building,” Edgerley said. “The goal here is to create an inclusive space that brings people together, across the generations and across sectors.”
Supporters, some of whom don’t live near Haddon Hall, hail her plan as forward-thinking. Opponents worry about traffic congestion, noise, and other disruptions.
The club proposal has generated hundreds of letters to zoning officials, whose approval is needed for the project. So many letters, in fact, that a day before an Oct. 31 zoning board hearing on Haddon Hall, officials still had not sifted through an unopened box of correspondence. The hearing has been postponed until Jan. 9.
The list of letter-writers reads like a who’s who from the worlds of Boston finance, real estate, medicine, law, politics, sports, and philanthropy. Most of the more recognizable names wrote in support of Edgerley — heavy-hitters like EMC Corp. heir Chris Egan, founder of Carruth Capital, and a former US ambassador under President George W. Bush.
Others in the Edgerley camp include Jonathan G. Davis, chief executive of the Davis Cos., a development company; Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation; Karen Kaplan, chief executive of Hill Holliday; and Robert Epstein, managing partner of the Boston Celtics and chief executive of Abbey Group, a real estate investment firm.
And both sides have employed lawyers and public relations specialists to spin the story line in their favor.
Edgerley has enlisted the services of attorney Mike Ross, a former city councilor and mayoral candidate (and occasional contributor to the Globe’s Opinion pages), and consultant Dot Joyce, former press secretary to the late Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino.
Preserve the Back Bay, a neighborhood group formed by some abutters against the proposal, has hired real estate attorney Lawrence DiCara — also a former city councilor — and well-connected communications strategist Doug Bailey. The executive committee of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay also recently voted against the project.
Mary Lou LeSaffre, who formed Preserve the Back Bay and lives in a building that shares a wall with Haddon Hall, said she is not intimidated by the big names supporting Edgerley’s plan.
“This is a very well-connected, powerful woman; of course she’s going to have friends in high places,” LeSaffre said. “There’s powerful people and there’s a lot of money on both sides. There’s a lot of money in the Back Bay. . . . Sandra is a wonderful person and does great things for this city, but this project isn’t right for this area.”
Joyce, however, said Haddon Hall is an ideal location. “The Back Bay is a huge center of influence in our city, and we believe that this project advances that,” she said. “Nobody loves change, but it’s not as though a private club is a unique idea in the Back Bay — it’s an old idea with a unique take on it. It is exactly like all the other private clubs [in the neighborhood], of which there’s 10.”
DiCara said the neighbors he represents worry that a commercial development is being disguised as a social club. The building is zoned for residential use, but a private club would be considered an allowable use in the Back Bay — meaning that while the project needs zoning approvals, it doesn’t have to go through the more rigorous special permitting process.
“The proponent has a lot of friends,” DiCara said. “This is not about personalities, this is about real estate. . . . Over the past 50 or so years, the Back Bay has become far more residential on Beacon, Marlborough [streets], and Commonwealth Avenue. This reverses that trend.”
Edgerley noted that support for the project comes from “notable Bostonians and regular citizens, as well.”
“I noticed at some of our community meetings that a lot of people who were speaking in favor were part of that younger generation; they’re new to Back Bay, new to Boston, and hungry for the opportunity to connect to members of the community who maybe have been here a little longer,” she said.
LeSaffre said she has met with Edgerley, Ross, and a developer involved in the proposal to address her concerns and those of neighbors at 31-33 Commonwealth Ave. According to LeSaffre, Ross offered the neighbors “gourmet meals” as well as valet parking in exchange for their support. They were rejected, LeSaffre said.
Ross declined to comment. Edgerley would not confirm whether meals and parking were offered to abutters, but said they discussed making members’ amenities available to the neighbors.“We plan to be a good neighbor, and want to be a good neighbor, and want to make it a benefit for those who live by it and the community as a whole,” Edgerley said.