In Hynes redevelopment, you’ve got to have arts

State should think boldly -- and creatively -- in planning reuse of convention center

GENE RODDENBERY’S classic television series explored the voyages of the starship Enterprise, exploring new worlds, seeking out new lives and civilizations and to boldly go where nobody has before. We have that opportunity today here on Earth with 4.4 acres of underutilized space in central Boston.

Gov. Charlie Baker is moving ahead with a plan to sell the Hynes Convention Center. Baker contends that the center was woefully underused prior to the pandemic and it’s even less so now due to pandemic-related changes in business travel. Given that the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the Seaport has ample facilities—and room to grow—the governor believes there are better uses for the roughly six acres of prime real estate the Hynes occupies on Boylston Street in the Back Bay.

The governor is right. The redevelopment of the Hynes presents an opportunity to create a unique communal hub that is accessible and attractive to tourists and city residents alike, much the way the Boston Public Library, its neighbor down the street, did by adding an inviting street-level cafe and broadcast studio—but on a much-needed, grander scale.

Both Mayor Michelle Wu and City Councilor Kenzie Bok have voiced desires for a thorough redevelopment planning process that considers the needs of the neighborhood and its residents, as well as the city’s broader economic health, rather than simply selling off the Hynes to whoever writes the biggest check.

Redevelopment planning must involve neighborhood and city stakeholders—including the arts and cultural community, which is making a slower-than- expected recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and could benefit from additional performance space and affordable housing in the city.

Arts and culture are a significant economic driver in Boston. Pre-pandemic, Boston arts and cultural nonprofits supported 45,889 full-time jobs, generated more than $1.3 billion in total spending and brought in $34.9 million in local tax revenue and $52.4 million in state taxes.

The pandemic and related health and safety precautions hit the arts community hard given its dependence on revenues from live performance and in-person engagement. Surveys by the Massachusetts Cultural Council tallied revenue losses of $618.7 million among arts and cultural workers and organizations in the pandemic’s first year and nearly $193 million in the second year (albeit from a much smaller sample size than the first survey).

As society has reopened, our recovery has lagged behind other industries. Audiences are smaller than pre-pandemic. Organizations continue to scale back major productions. In Boston and beyond, touring musicians are having to routinely cancel shows at the last minute due to infections among performers or crew members, hurting their own bottom line and that of their host venues. On top of all of this, the state’s arts and cultural sector received 10 percent of the Legislature’s identified need in federal recovery funds to shore up the industry.

The loss of iconic music clubs and other performance venues, among them the Cantab Lounge, Great Scott, the Milky Way Lounge, OBERON and Once Ballroom, are affecting local artists’ ability to book gigs and earn a living—so they’re looking to farther-flung locales.

Without a doubt, should the Hynes be redeveloped the city, local artists, and arts organizations would benefit from the inclusion of small to mid-size performance venues outfitted with the best available air ventilation and purification systems to mitigate current and future health risks. A similar idea was floated during Baker’s first attempt at selling the Hynes, when Boston Lyric Opera managing director Eileen Willston suggested it was the ideal spot for a performing arts center that would serve and engage “its neighborhood, its city, and its region, with daytime and evening activities year-round.”

Additionally, a 2020 report by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority suggested a mixed-used redevelopment that would include housing units, among other accommodations like office space, shops, and restaurants. Given Boston’s seemingly-endless affordable housing crisis, it should go without saying that a meaningful share of any housing included in the Hynes redevelopment should be accessible to all city residents—including artists’ live-work space.

The arts are core to what people love about Boston and Massachusetts. Despite the economic uncertainty wrought by the pandemic, the Commonwealth’s arts and cultural sector worked harder than ever to keep people connected. We’re creating experiences and telling stories that help people through the myriad of crises we’re living through. That’s just what we do. But if we expect to have an arts ecosystem that is as robust, innovative, and renowned as it was before the pandemic, we need to be creative and innovative…to go boldly into a future that’s unfamiliar.

Gov. Baker has said he wants the Hynes transformed into a space that is “active and vibrant.” Involving the arts and cultural community in the redevelopment process would certainly guarantee that outcome.

Meet the Author
Craig Coogan is executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.