Back where they started

MassDOT may move some workers into Parcel 7 on the Greenway

The state-owned building at Parcel 7 has kept a lonely watch over Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway for a decade now. The office structure, a relic of the Big Dig, has stood empty since the tunnel project was in full swing, as state transportation officials haggled over just what to do with the hulking, unfinished brick structure. Now, after years of indecision and false starts, the state is returning to a plan that was abandoned five years ago: Instead of putting the office building on the market, the state’s transportation bureaucracy will likely fill it with its own workers.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority built the Parcel 7 structure around a Big Dig tunnel vent shaft. The vent was an engineering necessity, and the commercial space that wrapped around it – public parking, ground-floor retail, and offices – was supposed to complement the activity in the adjacent Haymarket neighborhood. Buildings that lined the old Central Artery had back door functions like loading docks facing the space where the highway once stood; the Parcel 7 office space was the first building along the Greenway specifically designed to have a front door along the new parks.

MassDOT real estate chief Peter O’Connor said recently at a neighborhood meeting that the transportation agency is considering moving its own staff into Parcel 7’s four floors of office space. A MassDOT spokesman said no plans have been finalized, but two sources with knowledge of the talks say the current discussion is less about whether MassDOT will take the space, and more about who at the agency will occupy it. They stressed that the building will not house top transportation brass – a critical point, given delicate political symbolism tied to the site’s fractious history.

The Parcel 7 building opened in 2001, and Turnpike officials would later cite security concerns, as well as a depressed office market, as rationale for claiming the building’s prime office space as their own. Although the building’s parking garage opened immediately, the Turnpike didn’t rush to fill the rest of the building’s commercial space. In June 2006, the Pike board approved $10 million to outfit a new headquarters for the agency in the Parcel 7 building. Two weeks later, a Big Dig tunnel collapsed, killing a Jamaica Plain resident, and leading to the ouster of former Pike chairman Matt Amorello.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney had been engaged in a long-running feud with Amorello, and he used the Parcel 7 building to score points against the ex-Big Dig boss. When Romney canceled the $10 million Pike headquarters project, his administration gleefully dished details of the palatial spread Amorello had planned for his agency. Amorello’s large would-be penthouse, they said, was to have included a private bathroom, and a balcony overlooking the new Greenway. A Romney official labeled the spread “excessive both in terms of size and opulence.” Amorello would later protest that the penthouse designs predated his term atop the Pike.

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Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

Romney’s administration decided to put the building’s commercial space up for lease, but the Turnpike’s real estate staff didn’t issue an RFP for more than two years. The bid solicitation finally hit the street in October 2008 – a month after the US economy collapsed. The Pike received one serious bid, from the WinnCompanies, a firm that was under scrutiny for its failures at Columbus Center and its ties to former Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. Winn’s bid offered above-market rents for the office space, but Turnpike officials reportedly feared the symbolism of striking a deal with the developer. So nearly a year after issuing the RFP, the Turnpike pulled Parcel 7 off the market, citing dissatisfaction with the bid’s financials.

MassDOT, which absorbed the Turnpike Authority in late 2009, has been debating what to do with Parcel 7 ever since rejecting the Winn bid. The vacant ground-floor has been set aside for a year-round farmer’s market. The nonprofit market project, which has the support of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and $10 million in state seed money, is awaiting a final report from the state’s Agriculture Department. With MassDOT controlling the building’s parking and eyeing the offices along the Greenway, Parcel 7 is entirely spoken for. And it only took a decade to get there.