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Searching for an answer on 60th floor

Councilor wants Hancock site open

Development officials said it was meant to be a public space. Tourists, about 400,000 a year, used to marvel at its sweeping views. Nearly four years after the John Hancock Tower shut the public out of its 60th floor observation deck in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, people still contact public officials wondering when it will reopen.

There's no sign of it, however, and one Boston city councilor wants to know why.

Councilor John Tobin of Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury says he wants answers from the building's owners.

He plans to ask for a hearing to grill executives on why it's safe to hold high-priced private functions there but not to allow in members of the public.

''It raises eyebrows when even in New York City, the Empire State Building has reopened," he said. ''There has to be a justifiable reason why the Hancock is closed to the public."

The extended closing of the observation deck has caused considerable grumbling in Boston. John Hancock officials originally maintained it was because of security issues raised when jetliners slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in September 2001.

But as months went by and as skyscrapers including the Empire State Building and Chicago's Sears Tower reopened their observation decks, it became clear that the floor would not be reopened to the public soon. Company executives admitted that private functions took place there.

In 2003, Beacon Capital Partners LLC bought the Hancock tower. John Hancock Insurance and Financial Services, now part of Manulife Financial Corp., remains a major tenant, but one of the stipulations of the building's sale was that the observatory would not be reopened.

Hancock Insurance officials bluntly have said the observation deck would be converted to office space.

''It is closed permanently," Hancock spokesman Steve Burgay said in March 2004.

City officials have stewed over the issue, saying that a public observation deck was part of the deal when the city granted permits for the tower to be built about 40 years ago.

''When agreements are forged, they need to be adhered to, so kids from Boston and kids around the world can enjoy the view from the tower," said Tobin, who chairs the City Council's tourism committee.

The city, however, has been unable to find evidence of the agreement in its archives. Susan Elsbree, the spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said that BRA staff members have combed through records, searching for a written agreement, but have not found it.

''We believe it was part of the original agreement, but we have never been able to find it on paper," Elsbree said. ''We have always contended that the observatory should be open to the public. It was always intended as a public space and frankly a tourist attraction."

Public relations officials from the John Hancock Insurance and Financial Services Inc. did not respond to several calls requesting comment yesterday. A spokesman for Beacon Capital, Alex McCallum, declined to comment.

Tobin, who said that he has received e-mail from constituents and has been approached by people at meetings who ask whether anything can be done, said he plans to ask officials from Hancock and Beacon Capital, as well as city officials, to appear at the hearing.

''It's important to ask and to urge them to find out why the deck is closed," Tobin said.

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