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Developer may scuttle tower plans

Chiofaro urges city to relax height curbs

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / March 18, 2010

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Developer Don Chiofaro said he will abandon his proposal to build two skyscrapers near the New England Aquarium unless city officials relax height restrictions and approve buildings tall enough to make the project economically viable.

Chiofaro said the towers need to be 45 to 50 stories tall to attract investors willing to underwrite the steep costs of building on Boston’s waterfront. But he contends city officials are considering new height restrictions that would lower his proposed buildings by at least one-third, making them too small to support the high expense of construction.

So Chiofaro said he may do nothing and keep the property in its current form — a squat, concrete parking garage that he said forms an ugly barrier between the harbor and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

“From the very beginning, we bought the garage with the idea of turning it into an important building for the city,’’ Chiofaro said. “If the guidelines will not permit an economically feasible project, we will have to forgo the notion of city building and look at all of our alternatives.’’

His comments are a rare public challenge to Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who is known for exerting heavy influence over individual building projects, and drew a sharp rebuke from city officials. They said Chiofaro is trying to pressure the city into approving a development that has failed to win public support.

“We think this is a public relations play to tarnish a thorough and thoughtful planning process in which we are working to protect important public assets along the Greenway and Boston Harbor,’’ said Susan Elsbree, spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The conflict threatens another major development in Boston at a time when the down economy and tight credit markets have made it difficult to build projects that have won City Hall approval. And it raises doubt about yet another building site along the Greenway.

Chiofaro would be the second private developer to pull back from a major project along the Greenway in recent months. The other, Ted Raymond, was replaced two months ago as lead developer by the financial backers of a project that would straddle Congress Street. Nonprofits, including the YMCA and Boston Museum, are still trying to raise funds for their buildings.

Chiofaro issued his threat ahead of a public meeting at Boston City Hall tonight, at which consultants retained by the Menino administration are scheduled to discuss preliminary recommendations for new height guidelines for buildings around the Greenway. The corridor is surrounded by more than a dozen potential development sites.

For Chiofaro’s site at the parking garage, the consultants have suggested restricting new buildings to 400 feet tall, roughly 25 to 30 stories.

Chiofaro, however, has said his towers would have to be at least 625 feet, or about 45 stories, to attract the funds necessary for construction. He had initially proposed a complex that would have topped out at 780 feet.

He would also build a large glass atrium with shops that would include a corridor through which pedestrians could access the waterfront. And he would build a garage underground.

While Chiofaro’s project sits at a key location, Elsbree said the new height guidelines for the Greenway area will cover about 20 different properties and should not be seen as focusing on Chiofaro.

“The goal of this process is not to maximize profits for one developer who overpaid for his property,’’ Elsbree said. “It’s important to be patient and wait for the right development that is sensitive to the Greenway.’’

Chiofaro paid about $155 million to acquire the Harbor Garage at the height of the real estate market in 2007. Since then, the commercial property market has crashed, making it difficult to finance even modest buildings.

Regardless of market conditions, Chiofaro and some urban planners said developing his property — or any urban waterfront site — has particular challenges and risks, and so the buildings need to be big to justify the costs.

“When waterfront buildings are not allowed to be large enough to be viable, they simply don’t get built,’’ said Steve Cecil, cofounder of a Boston urban planning firm that helped develop the vision for the Greenway parks. “That’s why those sites are often the last to be developed in cities. The question really is where is the balance between planning and the economics.’’

Cecil said Boston’s lengthy review process of large developments works to find that balance. “And that’s the doorway through which this project needs to move,’’ he said.

But Chiofaro argued the city has not been responsive to multiple requests for meetings to discuss a compromise. He hired Pamela McKinney, principal of the Boston firm Byrne, McKinney & Associates, to study his development site and provide information on how large the project must be to be viable.

McKinney, who has previously advised the BRA, said yesterday that Chiofaro’s site has higher development costs than most downtown sites. She said its tight dimensions near the harbor will require complex and costly construction, especially to move the parking underground.

“If people are hoping that better economic times will eventually make it easier to build a smaller project there, they will be forever chasing a dream,’’ McKinney said. “Costs always escalate faster that revenues.’’

But some neighbors who live in the adjacent Harbor Towers condos and oppose Chiofaro’s proposal said financial barriers — whether they kill the project or not — should not be the primary factor in the city’s review.

“We have always thought Mr. Chiofaro’s plan was neither responsible nor economically viable,’’ Harbor Towers’ trustees said in a statement.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.