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Hotel tower may join skyline

35-story building a plan in Back Bay

A development group is said to be looking to construct a skyscraper on the site of the former John Hancock Hotel & Conference Center; no formal plans have been filed with city officials. A development group is said to be looking to construct a skyscraper on the site of the former John Hancock Hotel & Conference Center; no formal plans have been filed with city officials. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / March 1, 2012
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One of Boston’s most prominent hoteliers is planning a tower that could rise to 35 stories near Copley Square, adding another signature peak to the city’s skyline and contributing to a flurry of building activity in the Back Bay.

The Saunders Hotel Group, which formerly owned and operated the Park Plaza and Copley Square hotels, is part of a team looking to construct a skyscraper on the site of the former John Hancock Hotel & Conference Center.

No formal plans have been filed with the city, but people with knowledge of the project said the developer intends to seek approval for a 400,000-square-foot hotel and residential complex along Stuart Street. These people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss it publicly.

That section of the Back Bay has attracted a rush of large development projects in recent years, including a 33-story luxury residential tower on Stuart Street called The Clarendon, a planned 47-story skyscraper with homes and stores at Copley Place, and a 22-story office building now under construction by Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

In a statement, the project’s joint-venture partners - Gary and Jeffrey Saunders, and Jordan Warshaw - said they want to create a “signature’’ building that complements the existing architecture in the neighborhood. The statement said the developers are still evaluating their plans and intend to work with neighbors and city officials to refine the project in the months ahead.

“We are all excited about the opportunity to bring a well-designed hotel and residential concept to this site that will be an asset to the Back Bay neighborhood,’’ the joint venture, known as Trinity Stuart LLC, said in its statement.

Once a proposal is filed with the city, the project will undergo a lengthy review process during which neighbors will have an opportunity to comment and suggest changes.

Trinity Stuart purchased the property in December from John Hancock Life Insurance Co. for $22.6 million. The site includes the eight-story John Hancock Hotel & Conference Center, which is next to the University Club and across from the 60-story Hancock Tower. The building has since been renamed the Boston Common Hotel & Conference Center. It is unclear whether Trinity Stuart will seek to demolish the building or incorporate it into its new complex.

If approved, construction of a large development on the site would add to the recovery of the city’s commercial building market, which virtually evaporated during the economic downturn. In recent months, the market has started to show signs of life, with developers proposing an array of large projects in neighborhoods across the city. Perhaps most notably, developer Millennium Partners is now planning construction of a retail and residential tower at the site of the long-idled Filene’s redevelopment in Downtown Crossing.

Activity is also picking up in the Back Bay, which has seen a swift recovery of its office market as well as new proposals for retail and residential buildings. Simon Property Group won approval last November for a 47-story residential tower above the Neiman Marcus store at Copley Place. The $500 million complex would include more than 300 residences, a large addition to the upscale department store, and several new shops and restaurants. Simon is hoping to begin construction later this year.

City and state planners in recent years have sought to encourage development of large-scale buildings in the Back Bay, at times clashing with neighborhood groups about increases in traffic and the impact on public parks, among other issues.

A neighborhood panel recently flagged the property acquired by Trinity Stuart as a site that could host a significant redevelopment. The panel of residents and business leaders found that the parcel could accommodate a building of up to 400 feet, or between 30 and 40 stories, which is significantly taller than the 125 feet allowed under existing zoning.

To qualify for the additional height, the developers must show that the project will not increase wind in the area or cast shadows on surrounding parks or historic structures, according to guidelines established by the panel. They also must commit to funding neighborhood improvements, such as adding public art or paying for upgrades to nearby open spaces.

The panel’s guidelines have not been formally adopted by the city but are likely to be used to assess development proposals in the neighborhood. The guidelines say that new buildings should help create a “varied skyline’’ in the Back Bay and increase vibrancy along the street, which has pockets that are dark and desolate.

The Trinity Stuart partners have significant development experience in the area. Warshaw previously worked with developer Ron Druker on the construction of the mixed-use Atelier|505 project in the South End, and the Saunders Hotel Group developed the Back Bay Hotel at the former Boston Police Headquarters. The company also owns and operates the Lenox Hotel.

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

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