Where’s Cautious Charlie when you need him?
We could use him now when it comes to the sale of the Hynes Convention Center, which he has inexplicably put on a fast track.
For whatever reason, Charlie Baker is pushing legislation to quickly unload the Hynes and use the proceeds to help pay for the expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston.
He’s acting as if the Commonwealth is hard up for money. How soon we forget the state recorded a $1 billion surplus when it closed the books in June.
He’s acting as if the sky is about to fall on Boston’s hot real estate market. Sure, what goes up must come down — at least partway — but that’s not how level-headed leaders should make decisions that can reshape a neighborhood for decades to come.
He’s acting as if he doesn’t get why everyone thinks shuttering the Hynes is such a big deal. Whoever pays big bucks to buy it is going to use the precious real estate for something other than conventions and exhibitions.
Asked last week why the state hasn’t done a formal economic study before deciding to put the Hynes on the market, Baker reiterated the point that the aging Back Bay meeting space sits largely empty.
“It’s pretty clear if that thing is dark two thirds of the year, it’s a huge footprint of wasted empty space,” he told reporters. “To do nothing . . . I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the Back Bay or anyone else, certainly not the Commonwealth.”
I was later told that the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority has hired consulting firm RKG to do an economic study, which has been underway for more than a month.
But here’s the thing: Even with a low occupancy rate, the Hynes is a boon to Back Bay hotels, restaurants, and shops. They all benefit from conventiongoers on expense accounts. In fiscal year 2018, the Hynes was scheduled to host 108 events and generate an economic impact of $250 million, according to a MCCA report.
Usually, the governor orders up a study before rendering a major decision. That was Baker’s modus operandi with the Boston 2024 Summer Olympics bid and congestion pricing. (For those keeping score at home, big thumbs down on both.)
We know Baker isn’t fond of state-subsidized convention halls and that he put the brakes on a $1 billion expansion of the South Boston center in 2015. But in 2017, the convention center authority — whose director is appointed by Baker, as is most of its board — began to revisit the possibility of an expansion, and commissioned a study .
The report delivered in September focused on the economics of the two convention center halls, but included very little on the complexity of selling the Hynes, which spans nearly 6 acres in the heart of the Back Bay. For all intents and purposes, this will be a so-called air rights development — because the Mass.Pike runs underneath the Hynes any redevelopment would likely include some construction over the highway.
We know how these kinds of projects can go in this town. Just ask Stephen and Adam Weiner, who pulled out of their air rights project across from the Hynes in August, triggering an explosive lawsuit from partner and Suffolk construction CEO John Fish.
State Senator Will Brownsberger, whose district includes the Hynes, hasn’t decided whether the center should be redeveloped, but the Boston Democrat knows this for sure: “There are a lot of questions that have not been answered. Whether they have done the thinking, I cannot say.”
Chief among them is what could be built at the Hynes and what kind of impact that will have on the hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that have their livelihoods tied to the Hynes.
“This could go sideways for a long time,” said Brownsberger, explaining how the property could get sold and sit empty as the site goes through the planning process. “This is going to be one complicated engineering project.”
Representative Jon Santiago, whose district also includes the Hynes, echoed Brownsberger’s concerns. Santiago hasn’t taken a position on whether the Hynes should be sold, but he thinks the governor is moving too quickly.
“One message would be to slow the process down,” said Santiago.
Santiago, a Boston Democrat, wants to make sure businesses and residents have a say in the future of the Hynes. “We will see what happens from there,” he added.
City Councilor-elect Kenzie Bok, whose district includes the Hynes, does not support its sale. The process has been handled in the “wrong way,” she said, catching constituents and stakeholders by surprise.
“I’m not unopen to that conversation,” said Bok, but “knowing what I know about the process to date, we’re currently heading down a path that is a short-term, profit-maximizing sale that doesn’t reflect the interest of the surrounding community, the business ecosystem, and the long-term public value of the land to both the city and the state.”
To get a sense of the warp speed at which Baker has been moving on a sale, his administration didn’t even inform a key tenant: Patrick Lyons.
The powerful businessman owns the hot new French restaurant Rochambeau, which opened in October on the lower level of the Hynes. Lyons spent nearly a year and gobs of money renovating the space, which was previously occupied by another restaurant he owned, Towne Stove & Spirits.
“We had no notion of a sale when we decided to create what has turned out to be the very popular Rochambeau,” Lyons told me. “I don’t think you reinvent a 130-year-old neighborhood. The Back Bay has been, and will continue to be, one of the main reasons people choose Boston as a destination. I would hope our elected officials and neighborhood leaders think this out.”
Developer Dick Friedman — whose One Dalton tower sits across from the Hynes — wonders if state officials know what they’re doing.
“It’s a bigger decision than ‘It loses money, close it, and move it away.’ That’s not the right answer,” said Friedman, adding that redeveloping the Hynes would have “a 100-year impact on the city.”
Friedman said his new 61-story building — which features a Four Seasons hotel — does not rely on convention business, but what happens to the Hynes site will affect traffic and the vibe of the neighborhood.
“It seems very precipitous, and there hasn’t been much public dialogue,” Friedman said.
The upshot is that a sale of the Hynes will be a delicate transaction that must be handled deftly. Get it wrong, and you destroy a neighborhood that makes Boston unique. The Back Bay has much more to lose than South Boston has to gain from the deal. We need a lot more sophisticated analysis than what we’ve seen so far.
This is no time for Cavalier Charlie to show up out of nowhere.