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How dispute over Bayside Expo sign is thwarting development

The sign in question.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The towering sign that bears the name of the old Bayside Expo Center may conjure fond memories of bygone flower shows and auto exhibits. But the three-legged marquee has now become the unlikely epicenter of a turf war between a prominent family of developers and the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The battle revolves around who controls the land under each leg of the tired old sign.

UMass, which owns the abandoned expo center and plans to demolish it and build a parking lot, refuses to remove the sign, saying it may need it later. The Corcoran family, which owns the adjacent Corcoran Jennison office building, is furious, saying UMass has purposefully thwarted its plan to develop apartments where the sign stands.


For now, the spat is delaying long-planned development by both sides in the fast-changing Columbia Point section of Dorchester.

“I’ll move the sign to your property if you like, I’ll do anything, but I just can’t have this sign on my property anymore because I have to build a building,” Corcoran, referring to UMass, said in a phone interview Thursday.

To understand this fight, a bit of history: For years, the Corcorans owned the expo center and the land around it, but they lost the property to foreclosure during the economic recession. UMass snapped it up in 2009.

By a quirk of the sale, the Corcorans retained ownership of the land under two legs of the sign closest to their Corcoran Jennison office building. UMass, meanwhile, owns the land under the third leg, as well as the sign itself.

For years, the Corcoran company has tried to make UMass take down the sign, so the family can move forward with a city-approved plan to build a 184-unit apartment building and shops. So far, UMass hasn’t budged.

That’s because the fight over the sign isn’t totally about the sign; it’s about the expo center property itself.


That site contains a web of easements, which allow Corcoran to access the UMass property and park in the parking lot. The Boston Teachers Union is also on the site, and has rights to access portions, as well.

To further complicate matters, the utilities on the site are commingled, and the Corcoran office building shares a wall with the expo center UMass plans to demolish.

The turf war landed in court last year, after UMass installed security gates that the company says prohibited it from accessing parking spaces it has the right to use on the university property. Corcoran Jennison filed a lawsuit that is still pending.

The Corcorans believe UMass is holding the sign hostage in an attempt to get the family to relinquish its easements and grant the college unencumbered access to the site. Michael Corcoran, president of Corcoran Jennison Company, said he has offered several solutions, to no avail.

“Should a public institution be doing that to a private guy trying to build desperately needed housing in this city?” Corcoran asked.

The family owns a substantial portion of development on Columbia Point, including the Harbor Point apartments and the DoubleTree Bayside Hotel.

Michael Corcoran is now stepping up efforts to resolve the dispute, meeting recently with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and UMass president Martin T. Meehan. He refused an offer from UMass to purchase his remaining property.

At a community meeting at UMass Wednesday night, where the university updated residents about its construction plans, Corcoran loudly contradicted a speaker representing the university.


UMass, meanwhile, tells its own version of the sign saga. The university denies using the sign for leverage over the easements. The sign, adjacent to I-93, could be valuable advertising in the future.

“That’s great signage,” said Patricia Filippone, executive director of the UMass Building Authority, which oversees the building projects for the university system. She said UMass has also offered solutions Corcoran has rejected.

The expo center project is just one of several ongoing construction projects at UMass Boston, a campus that hopes to boost its enrollment from 17,000 now to 25,000 by 2025. The college recently unveiled plans for its first-ever dormitory.

Several other projects have been delayed, including an underground utility replacement project that has been partially stalled since December due to the discovery of asbestos in the soil during construction.

The sign story doesn’t seem as though it will end soon. Filippone said negotiations have all but stalled after Michael Corcoran rejected her offer to buy his part of the site. And even if Corcoran agreed to give up all easements on the site, she does not think it is a good idea to take down the sign.

“We don’t want to give up any of our rights,” Filippone said.

State Representative Nick Collins, a Democrat whose district includes the expo center property, said public institutions should not impede private development, especially on a site he called “long overdue” for an economic boost.


“It’s unfortunate that it’s being held up by this petty dispute and I hope the university and the developers can come together quickly to break this stalemate,” Collins said in a statement.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the asbestos detected at UMass Boston during construction. It was in soil samples at the site of a former landfill on campus.