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Brian McGrory

Gambling on Menino’s ire

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / December 21, 2011
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In the fair light of the camera, Tom Menino couldn’t look any more enthusiastic about the prospect of a resort casino at Suffolk Downs. “We are the capital city,’’ he said on the afternoon that the grumpy old men of Foxborough were rolling out their proposal, adding on a different day, “It’s a natural.’’

But behind all his public displays of affection with the owners of the horse track, Menino is anything but pleased. Actually, in private, he’s had harsh words.

At issue is the Vornado Realty Trust, the New York-based real estate investment group that gave the good people of Boston that nice dirt hole in middle of Downtown Crossing where the stately Filene’s used to be. You’ll recall that Vornado kicked out the tenants, knocked down most of the building, dug a hole, then abruptly stopped. Besides that, the project has been exactly what the area needed.

Throughout the downtown debacle, Vornado was buying up shares in Suffolk Downs, giving it a 20 percent stake in all, with Boston businessman Joe O’Donnell and rancher and casino developer Richard Fields the other major owners. The track itself is a money pit, but its owners have a good chance of landing the Eastern Massachusetts casino license. If that happens, the same company that left a hole in Downtown Crossing will be hauling money out of Boston by the truckload.

All of which has left Menino somewhere between frustrated and furious. I’d urge readers to sit for a moment because what I’m about to say may come as a shock: Our mayor tends to hold an occasional grudge. Actually, “hold’’ isn’t quite accurate. He hugs his grudges, nourishes them with warm goat’s milk, and gives them little pet names. And nobody has earned Menino’s wrath, rightfully so, more than Vornado chairman Steven Roth.

“You can’t make a fool out of the city with a big hole downtown,’’ Menino said yesterday. “I can’t allow that to happen.’’

“They’re not listening to me,’’ he’s privately told others, referring to the Suffolk Downs owner and his demand that Vornado address its hole downtown. He’s hinted that O’Donnell, his old friend, has been more talk than action in resolving the Vornado problem. The city’s development officials have basically told Suffolk Downs owners: No building at Filene’s, no casino.

And while it is the state that issues casino licenses, it is the city that signs off on variances and permits.

Which brings us to the news part of this column. Vornado’s not about to sell its Suffolk Downs share, not now. Instead, it publicly marketed the Filene’s site, but all reported offers were for less than $50 million - far shy of the $200 million that Vornado and its partners spent buying and preparing the land.

This fall, though, Vornado quietly received a $90 million offer from a pair of reputable developers who want to build a massive retail/office/apartment complex, according to two industry executives. The two sides negotiated a price slightly higher. And then the deal fell apart, according to the executives, over the timing of when Vornado could cash the security deposit. It couldn’t have been more absurd.

The question of the day: Does Vornado even want to sell the land?

More recently, Vornado has approached the city with word they are in “serious discussions’’ with “a credible company’’ to build an even larger residential and retail complex on the property than the 39 floors initially proposed, according to an industry official with knowledge.

But is it a stall tactic to buy time with the casino bid? Vornado doesn’t exactly have a reservoir of credibility with our weary and wary mayor.

Just for laughs, I left a message for Roth, the Vornado chairman. Suffice it to say he didn’t ruin a good manicure by rushing to call me back.

But time will tell. If you don’t see cranes in Downtown Crossing in the coming months, you won’t likely ever see cards turning at Suffolk Downs.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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