Paul McMorrow

Money meets bureaucracy in Haymarket garage

By Paul McMorrow
June 4, 2010

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HERE’S THE irony in all this grousing about the inability of anyone to build anything of note along the Rose Kennedy Greenway. For all the desolate landscape the Greenway’s would-be developers have left while they’ve scrambled for cash that may well never materialize, these private developers and ambitious nonprofits haven’t wrought anything close to the damage that has been done by the one building that actually did rise while the elevated Central Artery fell.

The old Massachusetts Turnpike Authority constructed the empty, depressing Parcel 7 Garage building at Haymarket because it had to: at its core, it is a ventilation shaft serving the highway buried below. More than a decade ago, though, the Pike’s brass drew up plans to enliven the building with office suites and first-floor retail, turning it into a prime real estate destination.

That was the plan, anyway.

After the garage opened a decade ago, former Pike chairman Matt Amorello claimed the building as his own, and kept the office and retail wings mothballed until they would be ready for his department. In the summer of 2006, he was drawing up plans to move the Pike’s staff to the new building — and securing $10 million to facilitate the move. The Big Dig tunnel collapse halted the move. Amorello was broomed out of government. A spokesman for his replacement called the Pike’s Parcel 7 office designs “excessive both in terms of size and opulence.’’ Funding for the agency’s relocation quickly disappeared.

The natural next step would have been to foist the garage onto a red-hot commercial real estate market. The Pike even employed a real estate department to facilitate just that sort of transaction.

Things in Boston never work so simply, though — especially where money meets bureaucracy. It took two years, and four Pike chairmen, before the agency got around to asking for bids to fill the vacant space; two bids then sat at the Pike for a year before another of the agency’s chairmen, current state transportation boss Jeff Mullan, rejected both of them.

All the while, the Pike (now folded into MassDOT) collected valuable parking revenue from the garage, while the rest of the building rotted. It looks much the same today as it has for much of the past decade: a dark, uninviting facade that deadens two sides of an important city block. And it smells.

City officials have plans to convert the entire Haymarket area into a market district, anchored in the vacant space behind Parcel 7’s dusty first-floor windows. A new year-round Boston Public Market would complement the existing Haymarket pushcarts. These plans can’t move forward until the state relinquishes control of Parcel 7. The current timetable calls for this to happen around the end of the year.

Peter O’Connor, the Department of Transportation’s head of real estate, has said he rejected the previous bids on Parcel 7 because they were too low, and wouldn’t generate enough cash for the state’s cash-strapped transportation apparatus. Several local real estate professionals have disagreed in private. But O’Connor’s office will soon launch a new planning study for the entire Haymarket area. It will help shape the next bidding process, and also cover a hotly contested vacant parcel coveted by the group proposing to build a Boston Museum as well as the outdoor pushcart vendors.

O’Connor believes a study of the Boston Public Market’s business plan will give developers some idea of the income that part of the garage building could bring in, thereby bumping up the price the Transportation Department could get for the space. But focusing on the market’s financials misses the point.

The real money on Parcel 7 is in parking; everything else — the offices, and especially the market space — is about public policy, not cash. It’s about breathing life into a corner of the city that’s been deadened by greed and bureaucratic inertia. In holding out for a better payday, the Department of Transportation is setting up this building, which has sat useless and empty for years, to continue to be useless and empty.

Paul McMorrow is a staff writer for Banker and Tradesman. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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