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SHIRLEY LEUNG

A desperate plea to save a development project: ‘Who is ever going to trust me again?’

This proposed condo tower on Boylston Street in the Back Bay has led to development magnate John Fish suing Adam and Stephen Weiner.
This proposed condo tower on Boylston Street in the Back Bay has led to development magnate John Fish suing Adam and Stephen Weiner.Weiner Ventures rendering

They used to be so close, at times inseparable, so what happened to John Fish and Adam Weiner?

Oh wait, we know what happened — way too much, actually — and it has the town buzzing. It’s all laid out in a bombshell lawsuit filed last week by Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction, against Weiner, his father, Stephen, and Weiner Ventures — over a Back Bay real estate deal that went belly up.

What the complaint won’t tell you is that Fish and Adam Weiner once had a great relationship. Early in his career, Adam spent five years working for the Boston construction magnate, including two years as his right-hand assistant, learning about the real estate business.

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Fish, one of Boston’s most powerful businessmen, took Weiner under his wing, opening doors and showing him how to become a major player. They would sit together at Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce events, and both serve on the executive committee.

“He is a young man with a lot of resources and high intellectual capacity,” Fish told me in 2013. “When you couple those talents together, it can be pretty powerful.”

That’s not what Fish thinks of his apprentice today as he attempts to recover $100 million in lost investments, expenses, and damages.

“Adam Weiner had no track record or usable experience to lead a billion-dollar development of this magnitude and complexity,” Suffolk’s lawsuit alleges. “His installation by Stephen Weiner was transparent and reckless nepotism. It damaged and delayed the project, wasted company resources, and created confusion, skepticism and tension with vital constituencies both within and outside of the project.”

They were all partners and friends until they weren’t. Fish and the Weiners worked together on the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which opened in 2008. They teamed up again to develop air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike at the corner of Boylston Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Fish typically is hired by developers to build projects, but this time he went into business with the Weiners.

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After nearly a decade of planning, the $800-plus million luxury tower was expected to break ground over the summer.

On paper, Fish and the Weiners made a good team. Fish had built Suffolk into a multibillion-dollar juggernaut, becoming the go-to contractor for the region’s biggest projects, from Millennium Tower to the Encore casino. Stephen Weiner made a fortune building malls in New England suburbs. Adam’s Weiner Ventures has been an investor in Steve Samuels’s growing Fenway real estate empire.

Since the beginning of the summer, there have been rumblings about a falling out between Fish and the Weiners, but no one expected Fish to go nuclear when the Weiners exited the project in mid-August.

John Fish (left) has had a falling out with Stephen (center) and Adam Weiner over a failed development deal.
John Fish (left) has had a falling out with Stephen (center) and Adam Weiner over a failed development deal.Globe file photos

In the weeks before, Fish furiously tried to salvage the deal, renegotiating with a lender. The Weiners weren’t convinced the complicated project was financially viable.

In an Aug. 8 e-mail to Stephen Weiner that is included in the lawsuit, Fish desperately made his case.

“I need you to reconsider,” he wrote. “If you pull the plug now, I am going to lose at least $45 million — without even considering the damage it will do to our reputations and relationships with all the people who have come through for us and who have worked so hard to get us to the edge of victory.”

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Then Fish made it clear what this was really all about: him.

“I know we are at different places in our careers, and you are looking forward to retirement and starting the next chapter in your life away from the pace and stress of these big projects,” Fish wrote. “I am only 59 years old and am going to be at this for a long time . . . who is ever going to trust me again to follow through on a major project and my promises and commitments again? Why should they? This will be devastating to me.”

Of course, this is Fish’s side of the story. The Weiners have not responded in court yet, but Adam Weiner told the Globe “there is absolutely no merit to his claims” and that the project did not proceed due to “a combination of reasons, including, but not limited to, cost and risks.”

Outside the business community, Fish is perhaps best known as championing Boston 2024’s failed Summer Olympics bid. In the world of business, Fish is revered and feared. People who know Fish and the Weiners did not want to talk on the record because no one wanted to appear to be taking sides in the messy divorce.

But this much the chattering class agrees on: It’s sad, and nobody looks good. Even for rich guys, losing tens of millions of dollars destroys friendships.

I will say this much about Adam Weiner. The 46-year-old real estate scion has been the frontman on the 1000 Boylston St. development, and while it’s true he hasn’t worked on a project of this size before, he has built a reputation as someone who sweats the details. On the Boylston Street project, he has been to countless community meetings to answer tough questions.

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I first met Adam in 2013 after he, along with then-partner Steve Samuels, won the air rights from the state for Parcel 12 and Parcel 15, at the intersection of Boylston and Mass. Ave. The process had dragged on so long that Fish, by then, had gotten out and transferred his stake to Samuels.

Weiner and Samuels eventually went their separate ways, Samuels taking Parcel 12 and Weiner Parcel 15. In 2016, Fish got his stake in Parcel 15 back from Samuels. (Samuels is still moving ahead with a $650 million redevelopment on Parcel 12.)

Air rights projects over the turnpike have been cursed — the last one completed was Copley Place, four decades ago. They’re complex and expensive, but ambitious developers always think they can beat the odds.

The explosive Fish v. Weiner lawsuit adds another chapter to the jinx.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.