Tripping up a rebirth
Nothing good in this town ever goes unpunished - that’s the thought that kept rattling around my head as I walked a breezy maze of parking lots in the shadows of Fenway Park one recent morning, the sounds of traffic filling the air from the Massachusetts Turnpike.
An uncommonly level-headed developer named John Rosenthal has financing to build a $440 million project that would include three apartment buildings, a parking garage, an organic grocer, and a 27-story mixed use tower, all on air rights over the pike and on a parking lot next to it.
His project, called Fenway Center, would create a gleaming neighborhood out of what is now a wasteland. It would employ more than 1,700 construction workers at a time when the trades are getting battered. It would lead to an estimated $200 million in lease payments to the state, $3.6 million a year in city property taxes, two new city streets, and a new commuter rail station that will more than double the stops at Fenway every day.
The state signed off. The city approved it. The MBTA is on board. The neighbors love it. Pull the cranes out of mothballs and get people back to work.
But this being Boston, can it ever really be that easy? Of course not, not when there’s a bunch of suits from a Newton-based real estate investment trust named HRPT involved.
You see, HRPT, also known as Commonwealth REIT, HRPT Medical Buildings Realty Trust (it has more names than Clark Rockefeller), a multibillion-dollar enterprise with buildings all over the world, owns a massive, nondescript building on Brookline Avenue, with a narrow, roughly 100-space parking lot near Rosenthal’s land. The city will have to cross a sliver of HRPT land to connect two existing streets. Separately, the project might cost HRPT from four to a dozen parking spots.
Rosenthal told HRPT officials that he would give them an equal amount of parking in one of his garages. HRPT’s response, according to Rosenthal: Great, we’ll take 200. Yes, that’s right. You lose a handful of spaces, you demand 200 in return.
When they didn’t get their parking, HRPT did exactly what you would expect executives from a real estate trust would do: They sued to block the whole project.
“It’s a stick-up, no question about it,’’ Tom Menino said. “Come on, you’re telling me that for maybe 13 parking spaces we can’t negotiate an agreement?’’
And for that, a $440 million project has been stalled since January while a land court judge decides whether to push the HRPT suit to trial or dismiss it.
I called the HRPT managing trustee and president, Adam Portnoy. A vice president, Tim Bonang, called back to say that any easements would hurt their value by reducing the value of their developable land, a disputed assertion. “We’re a publicly traded entity,’’ he said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the investments. Allowing our property to be devalued would go against our responsibility.’’
Devalued? The state wants to build a train station about a hundred yards from their side door. There will be new streets next to their weather-worn parking lot. They will be bordered by new development rather than a canyon of traffic.
Bonang said that they did not propose a “trade on parking spaces,’’ but that Rosenthal made an offer of space to offset “the loss of property value’’ from the project.
By the way, the last time HRPT was in the news was when the Globe’s Steve Syre reported on shareholder complaints a few years ago over the trust’s poor earnings and apparent conflicts of interest.
Peter Meade, the head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, called the suit frivolous. In a deposition, city planner Kairos Shen said he was baffled by HRPT’s complaints.
“It’s a meritless attempt to stop a great project, and they will fail,’’ Rosenthal said yesterday.
Hopefully, he is right. Livelihoods - and the common good - depend on it.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.