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Convention center chess

Expansion proposal noticeably absent from economic development legislation

BY: Paul McMorrow


The House rolled out a major economic development package this week, but one key proposal that has been kicking around Beacon Hill for two-and-a-half years was noticeably absent – the proposed expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Convention officials launched an ambitious program for expanding the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in November 2009, with plans for a $1 billion expansion of the South Boston facility as well as the construction of a new $500 million headquarters hotel, and multiple smaller, mid-priced hotels.

James Rooney, the executive director of the authority, has been arguing that the South Boston facility is too small, and has too few nearby hotel rooms, to host many marquee conventions; he has booked six events for an expanded convention center that would be too large to fit into the current facility.

The Legislature is currently wrestling with budget deliberations, health care cost containment, the implementation of casino gambling, and a contentious overhaul of criminal sentencing, so it’s unlikely that a funding mechanism for the full $1 billion convention center buildout will emerge from Beacon Hill before the legislative session expires on July 31.

However, Rooney has identified a number of initial steps the MCCA could take, and finance with funds it currently controls, while awaiting broader action from Beacon Hill. These steps include land acquisition, permitting, putting the proposed 1,000-room headquarters hotel out to bid, and relocating a pair of MassDOT facilities that currently occupy 3.6 acres of convention center land. Convention center planners also want to acquire land, secure permits, and build parking for the smaller hotels, and then enter into ground leases with developers.

Most of these early steps are complicated by a prohibition against building hotels south of Summer Street in South Boston. The prohibition was written into the convention center’s 1997 authorizing legislation, at a time when the idea of a convention center aroused deep suspicion inside South Boston.

The author of the House’s economic development bill, Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee, inserted a placeholder for a modification of the Summer Street hotel language in the economic development bill the House unveiled this week. That modification, Wagner said, is pending “a dialogue with the neighborhood. I want to make sure the neighborhood has a comfort level that it makes sense.”

MCCA officials will meet with South Boston residents on Thursday evening to discuss lifting the Summer Street hotel prohibition. They’re expected to ask the neighborhood for approvals to build hotels in targeted zones – along D Street, for instance – instead of repealing the south-of-Summer language outright. That’s due, in large part, to the political storms that faced the South Boston facility in the 1990s. The convention center’s history has caused legislative leaders, the MCCA, and neighborhood politicians to approach the Summer Street hotel ban cautiously this time around.

“The neighborhood was concerned, at the time, that this convention business would back right up into the traditional neighborhood, and everything north of First Street would become a hotel lane, and drastically change the community.” says Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan, who represents South Boston.

Linehan said he wouldn’t endorse modifying the hotel ban before hearing South Boston residents speak at Thursday’s meeting, although he did say Rooney appears to have won over many neighborhood skeptics. “The convention center has been a huge success,” he said. “How it has developed, in cooperation with the neighborhood, has really worked. As they expand, they need to continue that cooperation. This is an important step to take – to meet with the community, and if there are legitimate criticisms, that they be taken into account.”

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