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1,000 feet too tall for Hub tower, FAA rules

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Thomas C. Palmer Jr.
Globe Staff / May 16, 2008

Mayor Thomas M. Menino's dream of a 1,000-foot tower in downtown Boston will have to shrink to meet the objections of federal officials, who fear it would obstruct aircraft flying in and out of Logan Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration has told Boston officials that, at 1,000 feet, the skyscraper might be an obstruction, possibly in the flight path of a plane aborting a landing at Logan and unexpectedly veering off over downtown Boston at low altitude, according to people involved in the development.

The agency is now analyzing how tall the tower can be without blocking aircraft. The tower is "stalled because of the FAA issue on height," Menino said this week.

Businessman Steve Belkin proposed erecting what would be Boston's tallest building on a city- owned site after Menino two years ago challenged developers to produce an ambitious project.

Belkin, who operates a variety of businesses through his company Trans National Group, was the only one to respond, and he produced a unique design for a 75-story tower of glass that would float above a ground-level public space and incorporate numerous environmentally friendly features. It was designed by famed architect Renzo Piano.

Yesterday, Belkin's development firm issued a statement about the building's height problem.

"We are working with the city and the appropriate agencies within the FAA to address these issues," Trans National Properties said. "In the meantime, we are continuing with our plans to fulfill the mayor's vision to build an iconic tower, which will be the most sustainable 'green' skyscraper in Boston."

The tallest buildings in the Financial District now are the 46-floor One Financial Center and One International Place towers, as well as the Federal Reserve Bank. Boston's tallest building is the 60-floor John Hancock Tower, at 790 feet.

Even if Belkin can't build a 1,000-foot tower, it's possible he could create something in the range of the Hancock, 50 to 60 stories in height. Belkin's development team has been in discussions with the FAA, but the parties have not reached any conclusions about the proposed building's height.

"The FAA has a process to evaluate proposed projects, such as the tower the city wants to build, and to determine if they are a hazard to air navigation or not," said a spokeswoman for the agency, Arlene Salac.

Matthew Brelis, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan International Airport, referred inquiries on the matter to the FAA.

After the FAA raised concerns about the height of new buildings on the South Boston Waterfront almost a decade ago, the city consulted with Massport and federal officials and issued height limits for prospective projects. No new buildings there can exceed 300 feet, and they must be even lower the closer the property is to Logan.

Kairos Shen, chief planner for the city, said the Boston Redevelopment Authority is doing a similar analysis for the financial district, including the Winthrop Square site where Belkin's building would go.

Menino seemed unfazed by the FAA objections.

"I said whatever height he gets, let's do it," the mayor said. "Let's build the most significant building in Boston."

But this is not the only problem Belkin faces. With the financial markets in turmoil, financing for a billion-dollar building might be harder to come by. Negotiations between the city and Belkin over how much he will pay for the site have made little progress. And Belkin had a falling out with Piano a year ago, so the architect is no longer associated with his ambitious creation. CBT Architects of Boston, which had been partners with Piano on the project, has since taken over the design work.

An executive working on the project, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak, said the design work on the building has almost stopped because of these troubles.

Belkin, an entrepreneur who made fortunes in the vacation travel, affinity credit-card, and other businesses, has little experience in the complicated world of real estate development.

Asked whether he thought Belkin can get the tower built without taking on a more experienced partner, Menino said: "He knows his limit. I don't know if he needs a partner. I think he's smart enough to bring other people on."

Belkin has been working since the beginning with the development team at Colliers Meredith & Grew, one of the city's large real estate firms. Executives there had no comment.

The idea for a tower was born just as a difficult period in the Boston office market was ending. When Menino issued the challenge in February 2006, high vacancy rates and low rents were beginning to give way to the current healthy market, where top-notch offices with views are commanding rents in excess of $80 per square foot.

Like any other developer, Belkin had hoped lock in a blue-chip tenant for a large amount of space, which would underwrite the cost of a tower with about 1 million square feet of space in all.

His elaborate plan was to have parking and a supermarket underground and a public gathering space at ground level. The office floors would start around three stories above ground level, and the building would have an exterior elevator and be topped with a roof garden with glass exterior walls.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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