Even as he surveys Boston from his office above the Seaport District, Jon Cronin’s voice bears the unmistakable lilt of his native County Cork, Ireland.
It was there that he began his improbable rise from accidental immigrant to developer. Cronin came to Boston for a visit 26 years ago. He was just passing through for a week or so, visiting some buddies, on his way to Australia. He stayed when he found out how much cash he could pocket in a day’s work as a house painter. Australia could wait.
“It was tons of money — in cash,” Cronin says with a hearty laugh. “Twenty-six years later, here we are. What a great city.”
Cronin now finds himself in the center of a dispute that has implications for the development of the Seaport District. His company would like to replace two old-school bars — Whiskey Priest and Atlantic Beer Garden — with a 22-story condominium development. The winding, corkscrew-shaped building he has proposed looks like nothing else on the waterfront; it is a direct response to Mayor Marty Walsh’s call for more distinctive design in the neighborhood.
But it is also drawing fierce opposition from an environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation, that says its construction would set a dangerous precedent in limiting public access to the waterfront.
Though the Boston Redevelopment Authority has approved the project, it has several hurdles yet to clear, including state environmental approval. The development enjoys strong community support, with some 2,000 letters written in support of the project. Most of those were from South Boston, where Cronin has become an admired player in the nonprofit community, even as he has maintained a low profile elsewhere.
We talked the other day about his life’s story, his own Boston odyssey. He went from a house painter to a bartender, completing a civil engineering degree along the way. His business career began in earnest in the mid-1990s, when he opened the Boston Beer Garden on Broadway. Its success allowed him to expand his holdings.
Cronin’s timing was inspired. “South Boston was just being discovered,” he recalled. “You could walk to downtown. It really just started to snowball. And then the Seaport happened.”
His portfolio now includes Temescal, Jerry Remy’s, and the Tony C’s restaurants, besides the bars that gave him his start. The idea of building a signature building on Seaport Boulevard came about 10 years ago.
Now his $260 million dream project — 124 luxury condominiums and two stories of restaurant space — has drawn criticism for being too big for its modest lot. But he believes such a striking building could be a gateway to the city. It sits just outside the tunnel where the Massachusetts Turnpike empties into the Seaport.
The project seemed to be gliding toward approval until the Conservation Law Foundation emerged as an adversary, asserting the plan allowed too little access to the water. Waterfront access in that part of the Seaport District is lousy now, and Cronin’s plan would substantially expand the Harborwalk at the site. But the environmental organization argues that incrementally improving on the unacceptable isn’t good enough.
“I don’t think we should use what’s there as the benchmark,” said Deanna Moran, a waterfront planner for the group. “I would hate for this to be a lost opportunity because we’re using what’s already there as the bar.”
As part of his proposal, Cronin would finance 72 units of affordable elder housing in South Boston, as well as donate $1.5 million to the Martin Richard Park to be built a few blocks away, among other community benefits. Both ideas have bolstered public support, though critics are unimpressed.
Cronin is convinced that his project will be built, and will be transformative. “I don’t think it’s a fight at all,” he said. “Most people love the project. They think it’s just what Boston needs.”