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JOAN VENNOCHI

On the waterfront

A NEW BOSTON is emerging on the waterfront. But watching it can feel like watching paint dry or steel rust.

Relieved by steady, if sluggish, progress on the South Boston waterfront, its promoters use any excuse to show it off. On Tuesday, they celebrated a hotel that is not scheduled to open for business for another year.

The most powerful man in Boston -- that would be developer and concessionaire Joseph O'Donnell, according to Boston Magazine -- greeted Mayor Thomas M. Menino at the site of the still-under-construction Westin Hotel. Then O'Donnell, his hotel development partners, and the mayor watched as a 25-foot steel beam was raised to ''top off" the steel construction. When the hotel is completed, a pedestrian walkway will connect it to the new, and still often empty, 1.6 million square foot Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

The hotel, which includes 100,000 square feet of retail space, is key to winning the expensive bet made long ago by the mayor and other advocates: If we build it, happy, revenue-producing conventioneers will flock to it. The hotel, said Menino, is the ''linchpin to making the waterfront really happen."

The new $700 million convention facility opened a year ago. There are 114 events booked for 2005, according to James E. Rooney, the executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. But only 18 events fully utilize the building's massive convention and exhibit space. Fiscal stability requires a minimum of 40 such bookings a year, said Rooney. The breakfasts, law firm holiday parties, and sales meetings that are listed on the convention center's event calendar for 2005 will not balance the books.

Still, Gloria C. Larson, who chairs the Convention Center Authority board, said, ''Things are better than the sharp stick in the eye" of previous booking reports. ''The glass is half full."

Enticing conventioneers to the new Boston has not been easy, partly because the convention business is changing, and partly because the new Boston is still a maze of parking lots, construction sites, and potential.

On a beautiful June day, people spill out of the federal courthouse and new office buildings during lunchtime, bringing human energy to a long barren scrap of land. The new Institute for Contemporary Art is under construction; so is a Marriott hotel. A luxury apartment building will soon be ready for occupancy. Its developer, Joe Fallon, who is also involved in the Westin Hotel development, says each new building brings bodies and ''bodies equal life." But large slabs of real estate are on hold.

Menino, whose legacy is pinned to this waterfront development, wants those bodies living, working, and consuming in the new Boston faster than they have been arriving. After years of controversy and development plans that never worked out, Fan Pier, permitted for about 3 million square feet of development, is for sale by its owners, the Pritzker family of Chicago. It has languished on the market for more than a year; and after the Westin topping off ceremony, Menino complained that ''the Pritzkers are playing development games" and ''the system has to be changed."

Some 24 acres of land -- mostly parking lots -- owned by Frank McCourt, who also owns the Los Angeles Dodgers, are another sore point. ''I'd like to see some action on that," said the mayor.

The convention center remains an economic gamble. But the overall vision for a new Boston on the waterfront seems reasonable, if still far from reality.

Some day, people will live, work, visit, eat, shop, and revel in the views as a matter of course. Many will have no recollection of how it looks today, or how it looked 25 years ago. They will know nothing about the political maneuverings that set this huge development project into motion, the personal feuds that at times undercut it, or the political connections that got it built and profited from it. They will not have experienced the market shifts that roiled its advocates.

To them, it will not be the new Boston, just Boston.

The only question is how long it takes -- and whether anyone who pinned a dream, a dollar, or a legacy on the new South Boston waterfront will be alive to see the big picture in all its glory.

Maybe that's why the movers and shakers behind this vision are determined to celebrate incremental progress, one steel beam, one snapshot at a time.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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