The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary is ratcheting down the tension surrounding its proposal to construct a 1,000-car garage under Storrow Drive and expand its facility out over the Charles Street Extension. The hospital has hired former Senate President Robert Travaglini to lobby for the garage on Beacon Hill, and it has been circulating a draft of a bill directing the state to lease real estate and sell some air rights to accommodate the overall construction project. But at a meeting with Beacon Hill and West End abutters Wednesday night, Mass Eye and Ear CEO John Fernandez said the institution won’t advance its agenda in the State House until neighbors sign off on the $170 million parking lot expansion.
“We will not ask the Legislature [for a bill] until we have community support,” Fernandez said. “We can’t do it without you.”
Fernandez also said Mass Eye and Ear was open to reworking its proposed Storrow Drive realignment, to make it hew more closely to plans put forward by the Esplanade Association, a private group of park advocates. By pumping the brakes on the hospital’s legislative efforts, and sounding a willingness to align the hospital’s plans with the Esplanade Association’s, Fernandez took much of the steam out of any opposition to Mass Eye and Ear’s garage plans.
Beacon Hill activist Peter Thompson welcomed Mass Eye and Ear’s proposal and its willingness to listen to neighborhood concerns. He noted DCR’s parking lot will remain a parking lot unless something is done. “They showed themselves to be immediately responsive,” he said. “We have an opportunity. They’re working with us.”
Mass Eye and Ear drew up its garage proposal in response to the pending DCR bids, and in response to the upcoming Longfellow Bridge repairs, which will permanently remove 60 spaces from the current hospital lot. The infirmary’s current plans call for a four-story, 1,000-car garage underneath the current Mass Eye and Ear surface lot on Storrow Drive. The hospital also wants to move Storrow to create a building envelope for a proposed 180,000-square-foot hospital expansion; current designs have the hospital’s new clinical and research building expanding out from the existing facility, over the Charles Street Extension and touching down in the middle of what’s now Storrow Drive’s eastbound lanes.
Mass Eye and Ear likens its Storrow garage proposal to Post Office Square, where a private developer buried a parking garage and created a new public park. The park Mass Eye and Ear wants to build on top of its Storrow garage would be much larger than the one in Post Office Square, but it would also be bisected in multiple spots by elevated highway ramps.
“This is not Post Office Square,” said John Stebbins, an architect who worked on the Esplanade Association’s recent plans for reinvigorating the riverfront park. Stebbins argued that “Post Office Square has a wonderful system of pedestrian streets that serve it,” and that Mass Eye and Ear needs to find ways to tie its proposed garage park to the Esplanade “to totally energize the green space.”
Mass Eye and Ear has pegged the cost of building its garage, moving Storrow Drive, and rebuilding the roadway’s onramps at $170 million. The hospital is seeking between $15 million and $30 million in public funds for the project.Mass Eye and Ear would be paying a significant premium to build its underground garage, but Fernandez argued the hospital can swallow those costs because it’s approaching the construction project as an institution, not as an investor. He said the 1,000-car garage, which would park “a very small number” of market-rate customers, would pay back the hospital’s investment in 15 years, while solving the hospital’s parking bottleneck for a generation. “We can afford to not have an enormous return,” he said.
At the same time, the garage will still need to throw off enough cash to attract outside investors, and debt, to finance the garage. “We’re not in the garage business or the real estate planning business,” Fernandez said, “but, fortunately or unfortunately, we’re in that business at the moment.”