Chiofaro taking fight with mayor to the public

Builder opposes new height limits

ANOTHER VIEWPOINT Developer Don Chiofaro has estimated his project will create 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent positions. ANOTHER VIEWPOINT
Developer Don Chiofaro has estimated his project will create 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent positions.
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / April 28, 2010

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The battle between developer Don Chiofaro and Mayor Thomas M. Menino — an unusually public standoff between two strong-willed, proud men — is ratcheting up today as Chiofaro begins a campaign to recruit city residents to lobby for his proposed project.

Calling the city’s development process “compromised and flawed,’’ Chiofaro is planning a news conference today where he will loudly challenge the mayor’s new building height limits for the area between Boston Harbor and the new Greenway.

That is where Chiofaro wants to build two skyscrapers, one 45 stories and the other 50. Menino wants to limit buildings there to 200 feet — less than a third of the 625-foot high complex Chiofaro wants to build. So the developer is hoping to sway Menino by running advertisements that urge residents to call or write City Hall in support of his proposal.

“We need to educate the public and seek a compromise with something that will work,’’ Chiofaro partner Ted Oatis said of the lobbying campaign. “We’re just trying to have a real dialogue here.’’

In recent weeks, that dialogue has escalated into a shouting match that has reverberated throughout Boston’s tight-knit development world, where most builders are deferential to Menino and scrupulously avoid public comments that could set off the mayor, and risk scuttling their development plans.

“Others might feel the way Don does sometimes, but they would never verbalize it,’’ said Vivien Li, who follows development closely as executive director of the Boston Harbor Association, which promotes public access to the waterfront. “Most of them feel it does no good to badmouth people in public office.’’

But Chiofaro, unable to make headway in city hall, has taken the opposite approach. He has waged an aggressive public campaign to promote his development plan.

Chiofaro is proposing to replace the Harbor Garage on Atlantic Avenue with a $1 billion complex of offices, stores, residences, and a hotel. But if Menino moves ahead with the lower height limits, Chiofaro said, it would be economically unfeasible to build anything on his property and that he would instead keep the hulking concrete garage in operation.

Menino contends that tall buildings would cast long shadows over the Greenway parks and make them a cold, unwelcoming space.

He also says Chiofaro’s development would act as a barrier to the waterfront. Pointedly, Menino notes that the waterfront and the Greenway benefited from the billions taxpayers spent to remove the old elevated Central Artery that once divided the city.

“It’s very shortsighted of developers to complain that they paid a lot for their property, and they want a return on their investment,’’ Menino said in a Globe story on the height limitations last month. “I don’t think that’s right. The taxpayers paid to create the Greenway, and they want it to be accessible.’’

Menino has also questioned whether Chiofaro could afford to build his grand project, even if he could get city approval. The mayor has suggested Chiofaro overpaid for the garage when he bought it in 2007 for $155 million, and that given the economy, there is no demand for new office space in the amounts he would add. Nearly every large-scale development project in the city is stalled because of the lack of capital for construction projects. Seven office projects comprising 4.6 million square feet are struggling to raise funds, and they have permits that Chiofaro’s project lacks.

Lenders are reluctant to provide funding at a time when office rents in Boston are still dropping, to levels that won’t repay the high cost of building a new office tower. Moreover, the retail sector that helps anchor projects such as Chiofaro’s is recovering from the recession and is not opening new stores.

But Chiofaro and his partners say none of that should prevent the city from considering their project, which, if approved, could be ready for construction when the building market recovers. Today his firm will begin running advertisements on, the Globe’s website, that urge people to tell Menino to support his project.

“We aren’t just constructing a building, we’re creating a neighborhood,’’ the ad reads. It also pitches the project as environmentally friendly and a creator of jobs in the sluggish economy. Chiofaro has estimated his project will create 3,000 construction jobs and another 3,000 permanent positions.

He’s not winning converts at the place where he most needs them: the Boston Redevelopment Authority. At the BRA, Menino aides said Chiofaro is trying to deflect attention from what they say are the negative aspects of his towers, such as shadows on the Greenway and a barrier to the waterfront.

“This continues his PR ploy to put his personal profits before the protection of the Greenway and Boston Harbor,’’ said Susan Elsbree, a spokeswoman for the BRA. Residents at the adjacent Harbor Towers condominiums have also continued to attack Chiofaro loudly, yesterday issuing a statement calling his planned news conference “an act of desperation.’’

But Oatis said the Chiofaro firm’s resolve has not weakened, nor has its desire to challenge the mayor.

“We think the project we’re suggesting can make an enormous difference for the Greenway,’’ Oatis said. “If the garage doesn’t get redeveloped, the losers will be everybody in the city.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at