By Kenzie Bok
On Sept. 16, 2019, the residents, businesses, and other stakeholders of the Back Bay and the Fenway awoke to the surprising and unwelcome news that the State had decided to sell the Hynes Convention Center in order to finance the expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) in South Boston. Despite no consultation with those who surround and work at the Hynes, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA) board took a hasty vote later that week to authorize the sale. We now stand at a pivotal moment in which the state legislature must decide whether to authorize such a sale, and if so, what conditions to require for the future of the Hynes.
The Hynes is at the heart of our Back Bay economic ecosystem. When we stroll down Newbury Street, drop into a Boylston Street restaurant, or pick up a book at the Boston Public Library, the lanyards (or Anime costumes!) tell us locals that a convention is in town. Conventioneers stay in local hotels and spend money across a vast array of small establishments. To perform open heart surgery on that complex coronary system of economic relationships requires careful study and planning as to what could successfully replace it – not a precipitous decision aimed at trading a key piece of our urban fabric for a sum of ready cash.
This week, on Jan. 27, I was proud to stand united with Sen. Will Brownsberger, Rep. Jay Livingstone, Rep. Jon Santiago, Councilor Ed Flynn, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) and the Back Bay Association (BBA) to ask with one voice that the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight decouple the two issues: the expansion of the BCEC and the future of the Hynes. The need for the expansion has received considerable careful study from the MCCA, whereas the future of the Hynes site has received no serious attention. A BCEC expansion – with appropriate protections for the rights of permanent workers and construction workers, and strong incentives for racial diversity in contracting – could allow Boston to compete for certain conventions that currently pass us by. But the Governor already has the authority to fund the South Boston expansion through bond offerings and other measures.
To pay for that work with Hynes sale proceeds cuts directly against the objective of careful planning for the Hynes site, as it will incentivize the State to simply seek the highest bidder. Furthermore, the greatest irony would be if the site were sold to the highest bidder, but easements and structural limitations either make it worth far less than anticipated, or else make it uniquely valuable to a single abutter who would face little competition. Such a turn of events would mar Back Bay while still leaving the BCEC expansion in need of further funding.
The convention business is changing; stasis is not an option for the Hynes. It may well be time to dream a better future for the site. Perhaps that means a smaller, customized meeting space tailored to a particular class of boutique conventions, paired with a performing arts center, or a long-sought-after public school, or true mixed-income housing development. The site is enormous and could house many uses. Every stakeholder I know in the Back Bay and Fenway – from neighbors to workers to business owners – is ready to engage with the MCCA in order to craft such a plan. What we cannot support is an effort to short-circuit such planning in favor of seeing the Hynes as merely a short-term source of funds.
Power over a piece of public land is a very tangible manifestation of the public trust. Land endures, and in a mature yet still growing city like Boston, it is our most scarce and precious public asset. When it comes to deciding the future of a parcel as significant as the Hynes Convention Center, we must insist on widespread input and thoughtful attention to its role in the long-term future of our vital urban neighborhoods.
The author, Kenzie Bok, is the new Boston City Councilor for District 8, which includes Back Bay, Fenway, Beacon Hill, Mission Hill, and the West End.