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Developer’s towering complaint

Chiofaro takes big risk with attack on Menino

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / May 9, 2010

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The biggest show in Boston politics opened last week in a pink granite skyscraper at the edge of the financial district.

In the lobby of International Place, the high-rise complex that he built, developer Don Chiofaro strode to a microphone and launched what many colleagues considered a self-destructive attack against Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the man whose blessing he needs to build two towers on the waterfront.

The city review process, Chiofaro began, is a “charade.’’ Menino, he said, has put the fix in with sham zoning that would cut the height of his towers by two-thirds. And then Chiofaro bulldozed ahead as if still playing linebacker for Harvard University, where he was team captain in 1968.

“We intend to keep the pressure up until we get honest answers from the person pulling the strings on this process, and we all know who that is,’’ he said to stunned silence.

To many, Chiofaro’s attack was a jaw-dropper, a suicidal move against a powerful politician who is known for holding grudges and didn’t like Chiofaro long before their latest collision. But it was entirely in keeping with the developer’s personality.

During his colorful career the 64-year-old Chiofaro has engaged in at least as many fights as he’s built buildings. He intermittently makes a bold proposal to shake up Boston’s skyline, and then tries, depending on one’s point of view, to either outmaneuver or just plain steamroll his opponents.

His current fight with Menino has become an open spectacle in the city’s real estate community. But it is not just an entertaining battle between two determined men: It is a debate over the future of a crucial corner of the city between Boston Harbor and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway — a swath of the city that taxpayers have spent billions of dollars to protect.

While some celebrate Chiofaro’s willingness to take on powerful officials, others say he is merely grandstanding to try to distract from the fact that his proposed complex far exceeds existing 155-foot height limitations. The property on Atlantic Avenue now hosts a brutish concrete parking garage that Chiofaro and his financiers, Prudential, bought near the top of the commercial real estate boom in 2007 for $155 million.

Chiofaro proposes demolishing the Harbor Garage and building two towers — one 45 stories and the other 50 — that would contain offices, residences, a hotel, and 70,000 square feet of stores in a glass-enclosed arcade. At its tallest, Chiofaro’s complex would be 625 feet, comparable to his International Place.

A recent City Hall review of building rules on the Greenway would increase the allowable height on Chiofaro’s property, but only to 200 feet.

The developer has released a study by a financial consultant stating that those limits would render development economically infeasible. Due to high construction costs, the study found that a complex of at least 500 feet would be needed to make the project feasible.

Chiofaro’s critics argue that that is just too big. Menino said it is not City Hall’s job to help someone like Chiofaro get rich, that the Greenway was built with taxpayer funds and shouldn’t be despoiled by looming towers at its edge.

Since the public challenge from Chiofaro last week, Menino has refused to respond in public, leaving aides to counter his complaints.

“Don’s arguments are so out of whack,’’ said Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce. “He wants to be treated differently than everyone else. If he wants to talk seriously, he should follow the proper procedures, which he has failed to do.’’

Joyce said Chiofaro has not responded to repeated requests from city officials for more information about the environmental impact of his complex. “Until he does, we’re not going to have anything to say about a project that does not exist at this point,’’ she said.

Don’t look for Chiofaro to back down; if anything, he is fueled by a fight and by his determination to succeed. He grew up the son of a Belmont police officer who had high expectations of his son. Chiofaro said any hint of youthful rebellion was quickly squelched. He played football. He studied. He also met his eventual wife of 39 years, Diane, with whom he has four grown children.

Chiofaro attended Harvard University and was a standout linebacker and captain of the football squad during his senior year. He remains close friends with a teammate, actor Tommy Lee Jones, who played offensive guard.

“Don Chiofaro was about the only defensive player I could never knock down,’’ Jones recalled in an interview. He said Chiofaro was a skilled football player because of his intelligence and because “he’s about as wide as he is tall.’’

Jones said he knows nothing of Boston politics, but added, “Whatever the issue is, I’m on Donny’s side.’’

Chiofaro, who once acted with Jones in the Shakespeare tragedy “Coriolanus,’’ is something of a showman. When he first pitched International Place in 1983, he entered a meeting at City Hall wearing his Harvard jersey and carrying a music player that blared the soundtrack to “Rocky III.’’

This time around, Chiofaro is less antic but still “on.’’ He glad-hands critics who attend his events, always seems in good humor, and likens his behavior to good sportsmanship on the field: tough while the game is on, willing to let bygones be bygones when it’s over.

For years he has hosted a salon of sorts in a skytop dining room at International Place, where he gathers luminaries from around the city to discuss issues of the day. He said a similar civic-mindedness fuels his fight with City Hall: to get a conversation going about what Boston should look like, rather than leave it to the whims of a politician such as Menino.

“What would be terrible is for everyone to know that one man controls the process, and then to just sit there and watch it happen,’’ Chiofaro said. “I think we have an obligation to talk about these subjects.’’

Maybe so, allow some of his critics, but not in the way Chiofaro is going about it. He so antagonizes the mayor and others that there seems little hope for the civil debate Chiofaro claims to want. To them, Chiofaro is stubborn and selfish, his pugnacity costing him dearly: few are eager to work with him.

“He has trivialized or ignored the significant issues raised by many,’’ said Ann Thornburg, a faculty member at Harvard who serves on the Greenway’s leadership council and lives in Harbor Towers, the complex adjacent to Chiofaro’s property. “Sadly, his lack of flexibility and compromise does not bode well for any constructive dialogue.’’

For many who have worked with Chiofaro over the years or watched him closely, it’s no coincidence that he has only one major project in Boston to his credit, finished in the late 1990s. Even that success was marred by a postconstruction fight with a New York real estate company that tried a hostile takeover of the property in 2004. Here, though, Chiofaro’s showmanship played to a local audience as he cast himself as the hometown underdog who vowed to send the “gang of pirates’’ back to “Gotham.’’

Chiofaro prevailed, keeping control of International Place. But the pirates, Tishman Speyer, sailed back to Gotham $65 million richer on the sale of their interests in the property.

Another of his recent building attempts in Boston ended in disaster. In 2002 he sued his former partners in a venture to build One Lincoln Street, a 36-story tower now occupied by State Street Corp. Chiofaro had been fired from the partnership for failing to get the project underway. The partners instead hired developer John B. Hynes III, whose finished product made the partnership more than $135 million.

In his lawsuit against Hynes and the partners, Chiofaro laid claim to a portion of those profits and said they had conspired to remove him from the project.

His lawsuit was dismissed, but six years later it still stirs anger.

“He sued us over a fabrication that was based on sour grapes and we had to defend against it,’’ said Hynes, who along with codefendants spent $2 million on legal fees.

The Lincoln Street lawsuit is also a major source of Menino’s antipathy toward Chiofaro because the city had given him a chance to develop the property, only to watch him turn around and publicly attack the people who eventually did.

Chiofaro, who has not built anything in Boston since that battle, said he sued because he felt he was in the right. “We stood up for ourselves,’’ he said. “When the dust settled we moved on, with no regrets, apologies or hard feelings.’’

His firm has developed several suburban properties, but nothing on the magnitude of International Place, which he spends much of his time managing. He is now trying to find new tenants for a 380,000-square-foot block of space being vacated by the law firm Ropes & Gray, which is moving to the Prudential Building.

Where Chiofaro goes from here is unclear. He and the mayor seem locked in a long-range standoff, and he is so radioactive in Menino’s eyes that it seems unlikely a third party — a civic leader or union boss — will attempt to get the two to reconcile.

Many other developers in Boston said Chiofaro has all but sealed his doom. The optimist in him makes no such admission. Still, at times, he seems to acknowledge the odds.

For example, last week the Boston Redevelopment Authority held a meeting on the new zoning recommendations, where officials said they will not budge on the 200-foot height for his property. Chiofaro choose to skip the meeting — and the chance to engage city officials—saying its outcome was a foregone conclusion.

“I could learn more going to my Italian lessons,’’ he said.

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

Developer's pitch

Developer's pitch

Don Chiofaro uses unique tactics to sell his tower plan.