Lawmakers get further details of convention hall proposal
New details for the proposed $2 billion expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center include a bustling commercial area around the giant hall in South Boston, with a grass-covered rooftop park, several new hotels, restaurants, and stores, according to a proposal released by state officials.
The area now surrounding the hall, including Summer Street, is a patchwork of barren strips, forbidding road barriers, or large buildings with few sidewalk activities.
If fully built out, the parking lots and industrial parcels around the center would be filled with a mix of midpriced and luxury hotels, parking garages, and several public parks. The convention hall would get a large ballroom and an expanded exhibit hall at the rear of the current property, at the corner of D and Cypher streets, and the existing Westin Hotel would add a new wing with hundreds of rooms.
James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said the plan is meant to be a broad vision for the area rather than a specific blueprint, especially since the state doesn’t own much of the property where the development would occur.
But he recently distributed the plan with state lawmakers who would have to sign off on the use of public funds to expand the convention complex, a project Rooney said is necessary to attract the nation’s largest trade shows.
“We know we can do better,’’ Rooney said yesterday, adding that several event planners have signed conditional contracts to come to the center if - and only if - officials proceeds with expansion. “This isn’t just speculation anymore. Businesses are stepping up and saying they are willing to come here if we build this.’’
Critics have questioned whether expansion is justified by the Boston hall’s performance, saying the facility has not attracted as much business as was predicted by consultants in the late 1990s, when the complex was built. Some members of a state panel that backed the expansion earlier this year also said they were not convinced the project would be the best use of the state’s limited economic development dollars.
The process of reviewing the plan is now proceeding on two fronts. The Convention Center Authority’s board is continuing to assess development scenarios and land acquisition costs, while state lawmakers are beginning to review the plan and devise a process for debating it.
State Representative John Keenan, a Salem Democrat who served on the panel that backed the expansion, said the Legislature is unlikely to take up the matter until next year, especially with casino legislation and other matters expected to take up much of lawmakers’ focus in the coming months.
Before any bill is proposed or debated, he said, lawmakers will need to know exactly how much public money will be required to fund the expansion. So far, officials have offered a menu of options that includes diverting existing hotel tax revenue, borrowing against future revenue to be generated by the expansion, and increasing taxes on rental cars, taxis, and other tourist services in the Boston area.
Officials have also said that a 1,000-room hotel proposed as part of the project could require up to $200 million in public subsidies. The Convention Center Authority is planning to request proposals from hotel developers to get a more precise estimate of how much public funding would be needed.
“We don’t want to waste anybody’s time with hypotheticals,’’ Keenan said.
He added, however, that Rooney and other supporters of the expansion have demonstrated that the area needs hotel rooms and exhibit space to compete with other halls. The Boston hall has about 1,700 hotel rooms within half a mile of the facility, compared with other major cities with 6,000 to 19,000 rooms within that distance. The center’s exhibit hall is about half the size of those in New Orleans, Chicago, and Orlando.
The area around the convention hall remains dominated by huge parking lots that offer little activity and detract from the appearance of the otherwise bustling district. Rooney said the Convention Center Authority is weighing several options to make development more financially attractive, such as buying adjacent property and leasing it to a developers loath to swallow land acquisition costs. He said a large part of improving the convention center is providing more entertainment and shopping options directly around it.
“We want it to be attractive and uniquely Boston,’’ Rooney said. “We don’t want people to walk outside and feel like they’re in anywhere USA.’’
Casey Ross Boston Globe September 2, 2011