News & Resources

Maximizing the return

It would be short-sighted for the City of Boston to approach 115 Winthrop Square as a one-off fiscal transaction rather than part of a long-term strategy to make the downtown socially and financially sustainable.

A Boston Globe article last week reported that the six developer bids for 115 Winthrop Square—a closed public garage in the heart of Boston’s financial district—range from $50 to $151 million. None of the bidders are being cheap. Each offers a different bundle of public amenities, whether it be 40% affordable and workforce housing units, new public spaces or street connectivity.

Yet one sentence in the Globe article raised a red flag: “But some at City Hall see the project as a rare chance for Boston to reap tens of millions of dollars in one swoop and are pushing the BRA to maximize the return.” If maximizing the return focuses solely on dollars, then Boston risks losing a major opportunity and we oppose it.

Everyone agrees that this is a strategic location between South Station and Downtown Crossing and this is an opportunity to strengthen the sense of place in an emerging mixed-use downtown. With Millennium Tower and other recent housing proposals, an exciting 24-7 downtown is on the way. That elevates the need for public amenities that align with the “new” downtown, that argues for increasing the walkable connections, and that increases the need for affordable housing so that downtown is not just for the super-rich.

The open house for the six proposals, which was a novel, praise-worthy approach for the city, demonstrated that we have six different contributions on offer for downtown. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance strongly urges the BRA to evaluate each proposal in terms of its public value, rather than dollars. The City needs to manage its downtown like a portfolio, and a healthy long-term return requires diversification, a blend of products and projects that are not all tied to same segment of the speculative economy.

This issue is not limited to the BRA’s sale or lease of 115 Winthrop Square. The Governor last fall announced an initiative to dispose of state-owned property, including some developable parcels close to public transit. The same question facing the BRA is faced by the Commonwealth: do you sell assets to the highest bidder in order to maximize the money you can plow back into the MBTA or even the general fund?

With a state budget over $38 billion or city budget nearing $3 billion, even a hundred million dollars can disappear pretty quickly. But long-term neighborhood sustainability, priceless.