Two of the biggest names in Boston’s development world are heading to court in an ugly falling-out over a posh Back Bay condo project that could have put a portion of their personal fortunes on the line.
Construction magnate John Fish is suing Stephen Weiner, who developed the Mandarin Oriental hotel and major suburban shopping centers, saying Weiner cost him tens of millions of dollars when he scuttled an $800 million-plus tower the pair had planned to build on Boylston Street, just days before it was set to break ground.
A decade in planning, the 484-foot-tall tower would have revived a windy, forlorn corner of Back Bay near the Hynes Convention Center and featured some of Boston’s most expensive condos.
But now, with the two parties fighting in court, the project is dead, and the property owner, the state Department of Transportation, has no immediate plans to find another solution for the long moribund site just inside Massachusetts Avenue by tiny St. Cecilia Street.
The story of how the men’s longstanding business relationship ended in such acrimony — Fish’s version of it, that is — is laid out in a colorful 80-page lawsuit that provides a rare look into the high-stakes maneuvering that plays out behind the scenes of the massive real estate projects that are reshaping Boston.
The court papers describe a series of negotiations with lenders and Weiner’s reluctance to personally back $400 million worth of financing for the project. According to Fish’s suit, Weiner released a statement on Aug. 16 saying the project had been scrapped — even as workers from Fish’s Suffolk Construction company were preparing the property. That move, Fish said, effectively killed the deal.
“Stated simply, this litigation results from the intentional bad acts of Stephen Weiner,” Fish’s lawsuit says. “The defendants engaged in brinksmanship and threats to renege on promises and commitments and to terminate the project, all to achieve objectives for the personal benefit of Steve Weiner and Adam Weiner,” Stephen Weiner’s son.
In a brief interview, Adam Weiner — who led the 1000 Boylston project — said he and his father were “surprised and disappointed” in the lawsuit from their longtime partner.
“There is absolutely no merit to his claims,” Adam Weiner said. “The project did not proceed for a combination of reasons, including, but not limited to, cost and risks, which we will establish in the litigation at the appropriate time.”
While Fish’s giant construction firm, Suffolk, is typically hired by developers to build projects, in this case he went into business personally with the Weiners in 2008 as partners, bidding on a state-owned site above the Massachusetts Turnpike in Back Bay. These so-called air rights projects are a complex economic and engineering challenge that has long bedeviled developers.
By 2013, when MassDOT finally awarded the site — known as Parcel 15 — Fish had bailed out of the partnership, transferring his half of the project to another developer, Steve Samuels. Weiner, Samuels, and veteran hotelier Robin Brown pushed ahead with plans for a hotel and condo tower. But three years later, with little progress to date, Samuels handed his stake in Parcel 15 back to Fish and focused on another air rights project nearby.
Then, in March 2018, Fish and Weiner won city approval for a 27-story condo tower on the site. It was shorter and smaller than what they initially planned, in part because of neighborhood pushback, but also because a partnership with Prudential Financial — which owns a neighboring property — had fallen through. With just 108 units and development costs expected to top $800 million, it would have been the priciest major condo project ever in Boston. There also were the challenges of building above the busy highway and commuter rail line without disrupting traffic.
“These air rights projects are very complicated,” Adam Weiner said in 2018. “But they’re definitely doable.”
But a little over one year later, with many of the details worked out and groundbreaking drawing near, Stephen Weiner was allegedly getting cold feet.
Fish’s lawsuit describes a series of increasingly tense negotiations this summer with lenders who wanted both partners to prove they had $40 million in cash, and $400 million in assets, in case something went wrong. Stephen Weiner balked, according to Fish, which he said prompted the lenders to then demand they set aside $50 million in cash. Fish said he put up his half, and worked out a deal that would satisfy the lender that Weiner was good for his share, too.
But eventually, according to the lawsuit, Weiner told Fish the project was “too risky” and that he “wanted ‘out.’ ” Still, negotiations continued, and workers from Suffolk began preparing the site for work.
Then on a Friday evening in August, in response to queries from the Globe for a story on another air rights project, a spokesperson for the development team issued a statement saying the project “will not proceed.”
“A combination of factors led us to this decision,” it said. “While disappointing to have to make such a decision, we believe it is the correct one.”
According to the lawsuit, Fish didn’t know about the statement, and never saw it until he read an e-mail from Adam Weiner the next morning.
“Please do not release this statement!” Fish wrote back, according to the suit. “As 50% partner I have a right to offer my comments.”
But it was too late; the statement was already included in the Globe’s published story, and soon other news accounts.
“The maneuver was an astonishing betrayal of trust and a selfishly unilateral violation of the terms of the parties’ Operating Agreement,” Fish’s lawsuit reads. “It was maliciously hurtful.”
Fish says it “poisoned” efforts to salvage the project.
As word spread that it wouldn’t go forward, Fish said, he had trouble convincing potential investors to provide the capital that Weiner wouldn’t. More negotiations continued behind the scenes, but the partners couldn’t reach a deal. Last Friday, their development rights for the site expired and MassDOT did not renew them.
That condo tower was kaput, meaning the nearly $90 million both developers had spent over a decade on planning and preparation was down the drain.
A MassDOT spokeswoman said Thursday that the agency has no plans to seek another developer.
“At the current time,” she said, “MassDOT does not plan to put this out to bid again.”