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Golden fleecing (continued)

THANKS IN no small part to the changed political climate following the Big Dig budget-overrun scandal, politicians have at least become willing to voice reservations about the convention center. House Speaker Tom Finneran, who’s built a reputation as a fiscal watchdog, says he’s “concerned” — he worries about whether the center can still be profitable given the recent design changes. He says he will ask two of his lieutenants — Representative Patricia Walrath, the chair of the long-term debt committee, and Representative Geoffrey Hall, the chair of the state administration committee — to hold fact-finding hearings. Finneran says he wants the latest information and analysis on how the design changes have affected the project. “I don’t like surprises. They should be kept to an ultimate minimum when the people’s money is at stake,” he says, emphasizing that he’s not holding the hearings with the intention of canceling the project. “It’s not a jab to set up the knockout punch,” he says. “It’s not with an eye to pulling the plug.”

Finneran, at least, is asking the right questions. Whereas planners had once hoped that the new center would attract conventions too large for the 200,000-square-foot Hynes building, the cost-cutting design changes mean that the South Boston structure won’t be able to woo really big conventions either. The likely outcome, suggests Chieppo, is that the new convention center will end up cannibalizing the business brought in by the Hynes.

Chieppo says it’s time for some fresh thinking from political leaders. The convention-center project took on an aura of inevitability, he says, after a 1997 study sponsored by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Boston found that the demand for convention space around the country would expand by 23 percent, while the amount of convention space would increase by only 13 percent. But the experts miscalculated. Now the demand for such facilities is flat, while the amount of space available has greatly increased. (Chieppo notes that the author of that study also conducted a similar one of the Charlotte Convention Center in North Carolina. It concluded that the project would generate 528,000 hotel-room nights per year. To date, it’s never managed to get more than 170,000.) How could the experts have been so wrong?

“You cannot find a study by these [experts] that has ever said ‘Don’t build it,’” says Chieppo. “If you’re going to do another study, it needs to be done by someone other than one of these companies who have said nothing other than ‘Build it.’” Now, he says, the state should commission just that: a new study by independent consultants.

But there’s another solution: scuttle the convention center and use the land for a new Red Sox baseball park. The Sox have proposed to build a new park in the Fenway neighborhood (see “Where We Stand,” below). But this idea is just as bad as the proposal to build a convention center in South Boston. Chieppo says he’s open to the idea: “If you’re going to build it [the baseball park] anyway, a baseball stadium there [at the convention-center site] is a lot cheaper than it would be in the Fenway.”

This approach would combine two unruly government projects (the Red Sox have already lined up $312 million in public subsidies for the development) into one. And it would eliminate the costly Fenway land grab that is one of the things making it hard for the Red Sox ownership to sell the team right now. In addition, Boston would get a magnificent waterfront stadium in the style of Baltimore’s Camden Yards or San Francisco’s Pacific Bell Park. True, there are those who scoff at the idea of wasting waterfront land on a ballpark. And there are those who scoff at the idea of putting a ballpark on a waterfront — wind and fog can interfere with game play. But a ballpark that office workers can easily walk to has great allure. In a world of limited options, the waterfront site surpasses the Fenway because of its far lower land costs, while trumping other relatively inexpensive options — Suffolk Downs, Assembly Square — because of its proximity to downtown.

City insiders swear that the Red Sox were already in the process of planning a waterfront stadium before Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s failed foray into South Boston five years ago. Once Menino faced the fury of the neighborhood, however, he didn’t want to confront it again. The mayor made his now-infamous linkage deal with South Boston pols over the convention center and has remained wedded to it ever since, while ruling out any location other than the Fenway for a new Red Sox ballpark. (“The site’s the site,” is how Menino likes to put it.)

City Councilor Maura Hennigan provided a little test of Malone’s “tribal” theory in February, when she tried to challenge the conventional wisdom by proposing to place the new ballpark on Frank McCourt’s waterfront land. Menino refused to consider her idea, and it dropped like a stone. But Hennigan still maintains that the convention-center and Red Sox projects should be combined. “From a fiscal perspective, we should be looking for ways to maximize our resources,” she says. “We should be looking at the big picture for everybody.” Although she does not favor placing the new ballpark on the convention-center land, she does believe that combining the two projects’ parking facilities would minimize costs.

Brian Mahoney, the president of the Lower End Political Action Committee, likes Hennigan’s idea of a waterfront ballpark on McCourt’s land. “The community deserves the right to examine any proposals that are out there without the dictator in City Hall saying it won’t fit there,” he says. And Councilor Michael Flaherty, a native South Bostonian, does not reject the notion of a waterfront ballpark out of hand: if work on the convention center ceased and if the community agreed, he says, “I would not be adamantly opposed to exploring the possibility to see if a ballpark could work.” He hastens to add that he’d support such a move “only after consulting with community leaders and my colleagues in government.”

Flaherty’s comments may signal some openness to change in South Boston. When the New England Patriots wanted to build there, community activists saw the issue as a choice between a football stadium and parking lots. Now they know that development will come, most likely in the form of dense office buildings. In that context, a historic baseball park doesn’t look so bad.

EVEN SO, stopping the convention center may be as difficult as Theseus’s battle with the Minotaur. The business and political establishments both remain optimistic about the project. Still, some business and political leaders privately acknowledge that criticism is taking hold. Although it would take a lot for the idea of building a new Sox park at the convention-center site to gain traction, it’s not so hard to imagine convention-center management having to acknowledge more cost overruns and beg Finneran for more money. Nor is it hard to imagine that the Red Sox will fail to win financing for their ill-conceived Fenway plan.

Regardless of the pressure to complete the convention center, Boston pols, including Menino and Finneran, might be wise to scuttle the project — especially given the drastic change in the environment since its conception. When politicians take such stands in the face of opposition, writers and historians call them courageous. And courage, in the end, is why we remember the names of some leaders — Pericles, for instance — while others remain forgotten in history’s dustbin.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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