Walsh gives Chiofaro an opening on garage

Focus shifts from height to ground floor

The view from Grain Exchange

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wasn’t in the room Wednesday afternoon, when the developer Don Chiofaro unveiled his latest bid at demolishing a hulking waterfront parking garage. Walsh’s development staff had little to say about Chiofaro’s plan to replace the Harbor Garage with a pair of towers and a substantial new pedestrian arcade. But Boston’s new mayor still loomed over Chiofaro’s announcement.

Chiofaro has been trying to rebuild the Harbor Garage since 2009, but a bitter feud with Boston’s last mayor, Tom Menino, doomed those attempts. Chiofaro’s garage redevelopment now has new life because Boston’s new mayor is forcefully, if quietly, beginning to put his own stamp on the city.

The atrium in winter

As CommonWealth has previously detailed, Chiofaro never really had a chance with Menino. Chiofaro’s garage sits along the waterfront, between the New England Aquarium and the Harbor Towers condominium complex. His original proposal involved building the city’s second-tallest building along the waterfront, and Menino greeted it with derision, saying Chiofaro’s likelihood of landing development permits were “about as likely as an 80-degree day in January.” Menino added, “It’s too big. His chances are slim to none.”

Menino dug in on the issue of building height. He said he wouldn’t allow anything higher than 200 feet to be built at the garage site. Chiofaro said the costs of demolishing the garage and rebuilding it underground meant he needed, at a minimum, three times what Menino was offering. The project ground to a standstill because it began in an impossible place.

Since taking office in January, Walsh has worked behind the scenes to make the levers of power in Boston, which Menino controlled for 20 years, his own. He’s launched a quiet, but forceful, housecleaning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. He’s tapped John Barros, a former mayoral rival, as the city’s economic development chief. And he’s brought developers who were frozen out of Menino’s City Hall in from the cold.

Walsh mentioned two real estate developers by name in his first Chamber of Commerce address two months ago: Don Chiorafo and John Rosenthal. Both were pushing large, game-changing real estate developments, but both were on the outs with the Menino administration. Walsh hammered out a tax break deal for Rosenthal’s Fenway Center, a housing and office complex slated to rise above the Massachusetts Turnpike, soon after taking office. And he laid the groundwork for the warm reception Chiofaro’s newest Harbor Garage plan enjoyed on Wednesday.

City Hall is in the middle of rewriting its waterfront development guidelines. It’s a long, complicated process, but the finalized guidelines will allow new developments to meet state waterfront development regulations, and receive state environmental permits. Walsh has used this environmental process to carve an opening for Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage project. Menino slapped a height cap on Chiofaro’s garage project and demanded that the developer work within it. Walsh has delivered the opposite charge. He’s asking the waterfront development group to focus on opening up the ground floor of the garage site. Walsh knows that the garage currently covers the site’s entire ground floor, and that carving out open space on the ground will push whatever goes above skyward. The mayor has signaled that he’s willing to make that trade, recently asking city planners, “How tall can you go?”

The atrium in spring
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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.

This new mandate – focus on the open space below, not the height above – gave Chiofaro the maneuvering room he needed. He released a concept on Wednesday that would replace the Harbor Garage with a pair of towers oriented around a large open arcade. The arcade, which would be wider than the Rowes Wharf arch, and roughly the width of a city street, would have a retractable glass roof; Chiofaro’s architects said the sliding roof would allow a variety of seasonal uses, such as farmer markets and a skating rink. Chiofaro’s new redevelopment proposal would take angled bites off the towers, putting the buildings up on stilts at the corners, and opening up views between the harbor, the Greenway, and Boston’s downtown.

Chiofaro’s garage project would top out at 600 feet. “Admittedly, it’s not a small project,” one of Chiofaro’s architects, Fred Kramer, said Wednesday. But the project’s proposed size didn’t cause nearly the stir on Wednesday that previous iterations had. That’s partially because the project Chiofaro unveiled Wednesday was significantly smaller than the one he rolled out in 2009. But it’s also partially because, by pushing fights over building height to the background, Walsh gave Chiofaro a set of parameters he could actually work within.