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Democrats oppose Patrick on grant

Columbus Center $10m draws fire

Governor Deval Patrick's decision to steer $10 million in economic development funds to the private Columbus Center complex has angered House Democrats who have repeatedly refused to support the controversial and increasingly expensive development with taxpayer money.

The grant was championed by Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a strong Patrick ally and supporter of the project, who was rebuffed by the Legislature two years ago when she tried to include $4.3 million for the development in an economic stimulus package.

"The developer is asking the taxpayers to subsidize his profit margin," said Representative Martha M. Walz, a Democrat who represents the Back Bay. "That is offensive to me and not an appropriate use of our tax dollars. We don't pay taxes to make developers richer."

Patrick administration officials and Wilkerson defended public investment in a project that developers say will create thousands of jobs and rejoin two of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods, the Back Bay and South End.

"There are some folks who may take issue with this, but the fact is the Columbus Center is probably our best and biggest chance of new job creation for the city of Boston," Wilkerson said.

Legislative opponents also argued that the money, which was awarded last week, was inappropriately drawn from a pool of money that was designed to help create manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts, not to subsidize real estate developers.

"This wasn't supposed to be a grant program where we just blow the money out," said Representative Daniel E. Bosley of North Adams, House chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, who helped craft the bill. "It was supposed to be money we held on to and could use when big players came here and said, 'We're interested [in locating in Massachusetts]. What can you do for us.' It was not to build condos or hotels."

Robert Coughlin, Patrick's undersecretary for business development, said the money will be used to create a deck and tunnel over the Massachusetts Turnpike. "The legislative intent was to make infrastructure improvements that will allow businesses to grow and create jobs," Coughlin said. "We're not investing in hotel rooms."

Wilkerson was unapologetic about doing whatever she can to support the project. "There is a difference of opinion here, she said. But "I'm going to do what every other legislator worth his or her weight will do when they have something they believe in, go through one door and if it's locked go through another door. . . . I've been looking at every pot and every pool of money for this project and any other project that provides the potential for job creation for the residents of my district."

According to administration officials, Mayor Thomas M. Menino also advocated funding for the 1.3 million-square-foot retail and residential development, which will rise above the turnpike between Arlington and Clarendon streets. It will include a 35-story tower on a 1,500-foot-long deck over the Turnpike, which will contain hotel rooms, condos, and retail space.

Bosley said the developers, Arthur Winn and Roger Cassin, had sought money from the Legislature more than once.

In rejecting these requests, several lawmakers, including House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, argued that the developers won approval for the project precisely because they pledged in many community meetings never to seek public financing for the sprawling complex, whose projected cost has mushroomed from $300 million to more than $700 million.

"We have objected," said Representative Byron Rushing of the South End, a member of DiMasi's leadership team. "My constituents did not feel it was a good use of public money. The whole idea was it would make so much money and be such a benefit to the community, we would not need to subsidize it."

An earlier attempt by Wilkerson to get the funds earmarked, or guaranteed as part of the economic stimulus package, was rejected by House leaders. Lawmakers, however, did set aside an unrestricted pool of $100 million to be allocated by the administration. Last week Housing and Economic Development Secretary Daniel O'Connell distributed more than $76 million of the unallotted money to a variety of projects, including Columbus Center.

The developers, according to spokesman Alan Eisner, had requested $20 million under the grant program.

Separately, the state last year had committed $20.6 million in low-interest MassHousing loans.

Eisner defended the state grant award, saying the project will deliver hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in community benefits. "This project is an economic and social home run for the city of Boston," he said. "It's been over 10 years in the making, and it's weathered the storm of huge increases in construction costs, particularly for concrete and steel, which form the basis of the project's foundation over the Turnpike and the MBTA tracks."

He said the projects will provide more than $45 million in public benefits, including 2,600 construction jobs, 360 permanent jobs, three new state parks, and a new ground-water system. Fifteen percent of the units will be considered affordable housing, he said.

"These benefits far outweigh the public subsidies which have been sought and were deemed necessary from the beginning," Eisner said.

Eisner insisted the developers never promised to build the project without any public funds.

Shirley Kressel, a Boston neighborhood activist who has opposed the use of public funds for the project, called the grant award an outrage.

"They rammed this project down the community's throat swearing they would cover all possible costs and they would never get a penny of public subsidy," she said. "As soon as the approval process was over and nobody was looking they launched a treasure hunt in the pockets of the local state and federal government."