Developer John Rosenthal is proposing a neighborhood-changing development over the Mass. Pike near Kenmore Square, and to make it happen he’s seeking a $7.8 million tax break from the City of Boston. Mayor Walsh should give it to him.
The Massachusetts Turnpike and the railroad tracks that run alongside it are one of the key historic spokes linking Boston with the outside world, but they also cut a wide swath through the heart of the modern city. As neighborhoods filled in thickly on either side, the transportation corridor kept them from knitting together. But the construction of the Prudential Center in the 1960s and Copley Place in the 1980s created new links, using new living space and commercial activity to bind the South End to the Back Bay, enlivening both.
Several years ago, Rosenthal first proposed to do much the same in the Fenway/Kenmore area. To the north is Kenmore Square, the epicenter of collegiate Boston; to the south is the rapidly evolving Fenway neighborhood, home to a collection of sophisticated new mixed-use towers rising on windswept parking lots.
Rosenthal’s Fenway Center would connect them. A deck structure over the Pike would improve the movement of people between Fenway and Kenmore — and to an MBTA commuter rail stop that has already been extensively rebuilt. Around the stop, and partly over the Pike, Rosenthal would build four new buildings whose residents and customers would activate Fenway and Kenmore alike. It’s a thoughtful, sensitive, forward-looking vision.
To get to this point, Rosenthal has had to evade or escape several of the formidable hazards that can threaten the viability of even the worthiest developments in Boston. There was a picayune but time-consuming legal dispute involving an abutting property. There were complex negotiations with the state transportation bureaucracy over Mass. Pike air rights. In a further complication, the MBTA’s then-general manager, Rich Davey, recused himself from discussions because his wife was a lawyer for the aggrieved abutter.
In the interim, costs went up, and would-be investors left the fold. Rosenthal insists now that he can make the math work if the city gives him a $7.8 million tax break over 13 years. Former mayor Tom Menino declined to meet with him on the issue. Essentially, Rosenthal’s now asking the new administration to agree to hold off on collecting additional property taxes in the early years of his development, and then to ramp up to the property’s full tax assessment only gradually .
Given the complexity of Rosenthal’s project and its value to surrounding neighborhoods, his request is a reasonable one. Fenway Center creates unusual public benefits, with greater options for pedestrians and commuter rail passengers, and does so under challenging cost constraints. Covering over a working highway is hugely expensive; most air-rights plans fail. If Fenway Center meets the same fate, Boston will lose its best opportunity in decades to build new connections over a longstanding barrier.