Convention center chess
Expansion proposal noticeably absent from economic development legislation
May 18, 2012
The House rolled out a major
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
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
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
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.”