Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement that he would like to sell the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center and expand the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is a proposal whose time has come.
Consolidation of the two facilities — the BCEC and the Hynes — would be a logical step if this were a private enterprise, even more so as a public infrastructure project. This is also the case for the Commonwealth, the Convention Center Authority, and the City of Boston. Retiring the Hynes and expanding the BCEC would create an economy of scale by eliminating the inefficiency of running two facilities and creating the ability to monetize the Hynes to help fund the transition to the expanded BCEC. A key issue is the potential loss of revenue to the existing hotels and hospitality facilities both at the Prudential Center, which is connected to the Hynes, and its immediate neighborhood.
There are currently 16 hotels with 5,746 rooms in the immediate vicinity of the Prudential Center. Assuring convenient access to the BCEC, located in the Seaport, is imperative to make sure we do not cannibalize the hotel industry, so critical to the success of the convention and tourism industry. The hotel and tourism industry relies on the BCEC to keep Massachusetts as a top destination, location — and Massachusetts relies on it.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Boston has matured to such an extent that the Back Bay hotels are much less dependent on the convention business and the convention demand will be met by hotels within walking distance of the BCEC. There are currently 12 hotels in the Seaport — existing or under construction — with a total of 4,965 rooms. Back Bay, in turn, has created its own ecosystem of hotels and restaurants that are less dependent on the convention world but essential elements for the tourism and business travelers.
A possible solution to efficiently transport hotel guests and convention attendees from Back Bay to the BCEC would be to activate Track 61, an existing rail line that runs from the Harvard/Allston Yards through the Prudential Center/Back Bay Station and into the Seaport. There are significant and costly technical issues that would have to be resolved to make this happen, but in view of the economic impact of the expanded BCEC and the Back Bay hotel industry, a low-speed rail shuttle system between the Pru and the BCEC would pay significant dividends in terms of transporting BCEC attendees between the convention center and Back Bay. Additionally, it would also unlock a dormant transportation asset that could link the Seaport, Widett Circle, Back Bay, and Harvard’s Allston Yards project. Just the connection between Back Bay and the BCEC alone would be a major transportation initiative as Phase I. Since the logistics of integrating Track 61 through the rail network involves conflicting demands, a long-term solution is solvable with smart engineering and appropriate funding. It is noteworthy that an 1,800-foot section of Track 61 is currently being upgraded at a cost of $32 million to test Red Line cars.
Governor Baker’s plan calls for setting aside proceeds from the sale of the Hynes to expand the 2.1 million-square-foot BCEC by another 500,000 square feet, with 206,000 square feet of “sellable space,” for a total cost of $500 million. Consideration should be given to finance the rail connection with the Back-Bay hotel industry to the BCEC. The alternatives are buses and taxis or Uber/Lyft vehicle trips, which will add to the considerable congestion in the city. The Green or Orange Line to the Red Line to South Station, then taking a bus or walking to the BCEC, is hardly an efficient alternative . . . unless, of course, the demand shift is significant enough to move the convention patrons to the Seaport area hotels.
With all of its moving parts, everyone should be a winner with the retirement of the Hynes. New development opportunities will be created on the existing footprint of the Hynes, since as a mature development, the Prudential Center has limited expansion possibilities. The Hynes site will create a cornerstone for multiple development options. The City of Boston will also reacquire 12 acres in the Seaport that it deeded to the Convention Center Authority when the plans were for a much larger BCEC development.
As the capital city of the Commonwealth, Boston has the opportunity to move to the next level in creating a world-class convention facility and new development opportunities on the current Hynes site.
Mayor John B. Hynes, after whom the auditorium was named, would be justly proud of the legacy he created by bringing the Prudential Insurance Company to Boston in the 1950s. The original name of the War Memorial Auditorium was scratched after Mayor Hynes’s death and renamed in his honor. Mayor Hynes gracefully retired to private life after three undefeated terms as Mayor of Boston.
It’s time for the Hynes also to retire gracefully after more than 50 years of service to the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Boston, the convention/tourism industry, and the Commonwealth all will benefit long-term from the timely execution of Governor Baker’s plan.
Thomas J. Hynes Jr. is cochair of Colliers International-Boston and a nephew of Mayor John B. Hynes.