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Boston soars, but only for some developers

Don Chiofaro watches tall buildings rise around him in Boston

The Boston Globe/istockphoto/h. hopp-bruce/globe staff

Developer Don Chiofaro must feel a little like the Ancient Mariner — thirsty in the middle of a high-rise surge.

Instead of water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink, tall buildings are sprouting everywhere around him — except on the harborfront site that Chiofaro owns along the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

For years, Chiofaro famously failed to win approval to replace an ugly, squat garage that abuts the New England Aquarium with two soaring towers filled with offices, hotel rooms, and boutiques.

After some much-needed whittling down, Chiofaro’s plan last called for two towers at heights of 615 and 471 feet. But his quest still ran up against the 200-foot height limit that’s part of Greenway development guidelines, plus the backdrop of a mostly small-scale city.


Abutters — most notably Harbor Tower residents — are part of the entrenched resistance to Chiofaro’s plan. But what really doomed it over the years, along with any potential compromise, was Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s well-publicized disdain for Chiofaro and his brash ideas.

Their clash of egos became a cautionary tale of what happens when the mayor doesn’t like you. The short answer: nothing.

Now, as Menino heads out of office, he’s high on height for other parts of the city.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority — otherwise known as the mayor’s development police — just approved construction of what will be the city’s tallest residential building. It’s a 691-foot condominium and hotel tower that’s planned for the edge of the Christian Science Plaza. As lead architect Henry N. Cobb explains it, this Back Bay tower will fill the void between sites “that sit next to each other but don’t talk to each other” — the Christian Science Plaza and the Prudential Center.

Earlier this week, ground was broken for a 625-foot mixed-use skyscraper where Filene’s department store used to sit. To pick up on Cobb’s analogy, this Downtown Crossing project will be talking to property that stretches from the Theatre District to City Hall.


Forget about any conversation Chiofaro’s building might have with its neighbors. For years, Chiofaro complained that he wasn’t able to get the mayor to talk to him. For a while, he tried to get Menino’s attention by insulting him at every opportunity. When that, understandably, didn’t advance his agenda, he tried silence — a smarter strategy that coincided with his hiring of public relations consultant Pamela McDermott.

Reached briefly by phone the other day, Chiofaro agreed with the premise that tall buildings seem to be rising everywhere in Boston — except near him. He declined further comment, and McDermott did not return a phone call.

This is an old story that illustrates the darker side of Menino’s decision-making process. Development deals get done if you are a trusted part of the mayor’s tight, inner circle, like Anthony Pangaro of Millennium Partners, the developer behind the Filene’s department store site. Pangaro is known for his quiet diplomacy and political savvy; Millennium and its employees are known as dependable contributors to Menino’s political campaigns.

Developers irritate Menino at their peril. Frank McCourt left Boston for Los Angeles and an ill-fated turn as owner of the LA Dodgers after Menino rebuffed his waterfront development plans. To finance his baseball dreams, McCourt sold the parking lots Menino didn’t want him to turn into mixed development that included housing. It turned out to be a terrible business decision for McCourt, but his exodus also explains why the waterfront is not yet a neighborhood, and remains a hodge-podge of office buildings, bars, and restaurants.


Of course a mayor has to be skeptical of developers who want to do business with the city. But Menino went overboard, letting personal biases rule his 20-year tenure as mayor. Leaving behind that claustrophobic thinking is what makes the prospect of a new mayor so inviting.

For the next mayor, deciding building height on the basis of a developer’s popularity should be ancient history.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.