The sale of the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay to help finance an expansion of the larger Boston Convention & Exhibition Center might make sense from a business perspective.
The politics? That could be another story entirely.
Officials at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority received a glimpse of the potentially rough road ahead on Monday. They trekked to the State House for a legislative hearing, for their plan to sell the Hynes and use the proceeds to help pay for a $500 million addition to the flagship South Boston facility.
It’s a deal that could transform the Back Bay. Whether that transformation would be good or bad depends on whom you ask.
State law requires that the MCCA get legislative approval to sell the Hynes. A bill to do so is being reviewed by the committee on state administration and regulatory oversight, not usually a hotbed of controversy. Things were different on Monday at this packed hearing. The two committee cochairs, Senator Marc Pacheco and Representative Danielle Gregoire, did not seem eager to endorse the sale after fielding concerns from Back Bay civic leaders.
But first, MCCA executive director David Gibbons and his team made their case: The Hynes is outdated, with its relatively low ceiling heights, vertical layout, and numerous interior columns – not to mention $200 million in necessary capital improvements. Better, they said, to sell the older convention center and the 5.8 acres on which it sits and use that money to make the BCEC the best convention facility it can be. Notably, the $500 million addition in South Boston would include a new ballroom, and would make it easier for conventions to be set up and taken down without getting in the way of each other.
Nearly five years ago, Governor Charlie Baker shelved a more ambitious expansion of the Southie complex because of the borrowing costs. Baker, who essentially controls the convention center authority, is on board this time around. After all, there would be no need to issue bonds if the Hynes is sold.
Support came on Monday from a number of constituents, ranging from the Teamsters Local 25 to the Seafood Expo North America, eager for a long-awaited expansion to become a reality.
But the latest version potentially pits lawmakers who represent the Back Bay against two from South Boston who filed the convention center legislation, Senator Nick Collins and Representative David Biele.
The Back Bay legislators — Representatives Jay Livingstone and Jon Santiago and Senator Will Brownsberger — urged the committee to separate the BCEC expansion from the Hynes debate. They have no problem with the Southie project — just not at the expense of the Hynes. The Back Bay business community depends on conventioneers to help fill hotels, restaurants, and shops. Lawmakers should be cautious, they said, and study the long-term impact first.
Others expressing concern included the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the Back Bay Association. The latter group, which represents business interests, wants lawmakers to stipulate that at least 150,000 square feet of meeting space be included in any Hynes redevelopment (an idea resisted by Gibbons, who wants to fetch the best price possible for the state). Hotel developer Dick Friedman warned of driving a stake through the Back Bay’s heart. And Boston Athletic Association chief Tom Grilk pointed out the potential disruption to the Boston Marathon, which uses the Hynes as a de facto HQ for registration and an expo on the weekend before the race.
The MCCA isn’t waiting around. It hired brokerage Colliers International last month to market the property, and the agency plans to move forward with finding an architect and builder for the expansion before the issue gets resolved at the Legislature. Gibbons wants to be ready to go when the Legislature approves the bill.
Or maybe that should be: if the Legislature approves the bill.
The two committee chairs griped to two Colliers executives, Frank Petz and Tom Hynes (nephew of the convention center’s namesake), after hearing from the Back Bay forces that they felt blindsided.
Gregoire said serious negotiations need to happen with the neighborhood stakeholders, or the deal will be “dead in the water,” as far as she is concerned. Pacheco lamented that he was given the mistaken impression that the bill had universal support. He told the Colliers executives that “somebody should be focusing on the political problem that you have.”
Pacheco reminded everyone that formal legislative sessions end for the year on July 31. After that point, a single lawmaker can block a bill. Thus, Pacheco spelled out a deadline for the MCCA and the Baker administration: They have six months to solve this thorny political challenge.