Don Chiofaro has been on his best behavior lately. The normally voluble developer has been lying low for several months, declining to take reporters’ phone calls and passing up chances to publicly sink an elbow into Mayor Tom Menino’s ribs. This is a sharp turn from years of gleeful antagonism aimed toward City Hall over Chiofaro’s plans to demolish the Harbor Garage, and the shift recognizes that bullish confrontation has gotten Chiofaro nowhere with Menino.
Still, it's not clear that the role of the gracious, deferential developer — a role others in Boston have routinely employed to great effect, but one that seems jarringly out of place on Chiofaro — will get him what he wants: permission to drive a stick of dynamite into the hulking waterfront garage. Even without poisonous personality politics, the math behind the Harbor Garage project will make it difficult to come to accommodation with City Hall.
When Chiofaro bought the Harbor Garage in 2007 for a stiff $153 million, it wasn't because he has a fondness for the parking business. The garage sits on the best development site in Boston. One door opens on Boston Harbor, and the other abuts the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
The garage was built to service the Harbor Towers condominium complex, back when the only way to lure residents downtown was to create a fortress that was isolated from the city. It is a monument to the economic stagnation that plagued Boston in the middle half of the 20th century. The Big Dig, which removed the highway that once rumbled past the garage's front door, was supposed to reconnect the city and its waterfront. The Harbor Garage is the largest remaining impediment to that goal.
Yet Chiofaro received strong pushback from City Hall on the size of the two towers he proposed building in place of the garage. Both would have dwarfed Harbor Towers. The city has been insisting on a 200-foot height limit — more than zoning allows now, but less than half what Chiofaro needs to demolish the garage, build a new complex, and make the whole project work financially.
Chiofaro took his Harbor Garage redevelopment off the table last month. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is preparing a new municipal harbor plan, which will be the key to clearing the tough state regulations that govern construction along the waterfront. Withdrawing the old, dead-ended development is a show of good faith. Chiofaro is saying he's open to rethinking a project he's been pushing for three long years.
There is nothing subtle about Chiofaro, who has long relished playing the part of the larger-than-life developer. He's a smart, gregarious man, and he plays the development game like a linebacker — straight ahead, seeking contact. Chiofaro seemed to welcome the conflict over the Harbor Garage redevelopment, famously erecting a giant red X on the side of the structure after his bid to redevelop it ran into city opposition.
The new BRA harbor plan is a make or break moment for the Harbor Garage redevelopment, and Chiofaro's newfound reluctance toward self-promotion recognizes what people have privately been telling him for years — that he can kick Menino in the shins, or he can build downtown towers, but not both. Chiofaro had steadfastly refused to play by Boston's unwritten rules, which tell developers to stay on his honor's good side and avoid creating good newspaper copy.
Keeping quiet will only get Chiofaro so far, though. Being the good cop doesn't reduce the cost of hauling away pieces of an old concrete garage, or building underground parking on deep pilings. Building high is the only way to recoup these costs. Taking the old garage development off the table lets the BRA write its harbor plan without a hard height figure to work against, but eventually, the redevelopment's math problems will surface. The city isn't saying it's married to its 200-foot height limit, but it's unlikely to let Chiofaro go to 600 feet just because he has learned how to keep his mouth shut.
The two sides still have a ways to go to bridge their differences. And that doesn't have anything to do with Chiofaro's willingness to go quietly.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.