A 'beached whale' for South Boston
by Jeff Jacoby
IT IS TIME to stop referring to it as a "$700 million convention center." Jacoby's First Law of Infrastructure states, and I quote: "The final cost is always twice, and often triple, the 'projected' cost." The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority can insist all it likes that the new facility will be built "on time and on budget." But the rest of us should know better. We have, after all, been here before.
In 1979, the Boston Redevelopment Authority released a detailed study on "Hotel and Convention Center Demand and Supply in Boston." It recommended doubling the capacity of the city's largest convention hall -- the old Hynes Veterans Auditorium -- at a cost of $35 million. By 1983, the estimated cost had soared to $150 million. By 1990, it had reached $250 million -- and the state auditor was reckoning the ultimate total at nearly half a billion.
Count on it: $700 million is merely where the bidding begins for the new convention center. The final cost will be well over $1 billion.
And all for -- a box. A big box. A box so big you could put the entire Public Garden in it, or 15 football fields, and have room to spare. And this outlandish building, which Robert Campbell, the Globe's distinguished architecture critic, likened last week to "an enormous beached whale," is needed, we are told, so that Boston can attract large conventions and be a "world-class" city. (As beached whales go, this one isn't bad looking. Its design, Campbell wrote, is "pretty good.")
We are being sold a bill of goods. The overwhelming majority of trade shows and conventions require no more than 150,000 square feet of space, and Boston can accommodate them already. The Hynes Convention Center has 193,000 square feet. The Bayside Expo Center -- which is privately owned and operated -- has 250,000 square feet. Only a tiny percentage of exhibitions could ever make use of an 800,000-square-foot beached whale. And only a politician could believe that those very few, very massive shows are the key to "world-class" status.
Boston has never been a bigger-is-better kind of city. People don't come here so they can gawk at massive buildings. For that they can go to New York or Chicago. If they yearn to share the sidewalks with 80,000 visiting chiropractors or the entire membership of the International Congress of Used Car Dealers, there is always Orlando or Anaheim. What gives Boston its charm and appeal is the very opposite of enormousness -- it is the human scale of its neighborhoods and the intimacy of its historic districts. When did we decide those weren't enough?
"The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center" -- that is the oh-so-catchy name dreamed up for the new building -- "will be the catalyst for our accelerated economic growth into the 21st century." So write Gloria Larson and Fran Joyce, the chairman and CEO of the convention center authority. "It . . . will serve as the engine driving significant business growth in the region."
This is pabulum. Auditoriums -- even gigantic auditoriums -- do not drive economic growth. We have been here before, too.
When the old Hynes first opened on Feb. 20, 1965, similar shouts of glory filled the air. The new facility would be a "showplace of the New Boston," city officials said, "a magnet for visitors and a vital stimulant to the city's future growth and prosperity." On its editorial page, the Boston Globe hailed "Boston's Great New Hall," and rejoiced that it was "big enough to handle a respectably high percentage of the potential convention and exposition business."
Yet the boom never boomed. By 1978, the number of conventioneers in Boston was no greater than it had been in 1968. The number of hotel rooms had barely increased. There had been no explosion of new jobs.
Soon city officials were once more bewailing Boston's inability to host larger conventions. If only we had a bigger hall, they insisted, visitors and money would rush in and the economy would take off. "Boston loses scores of conventions that want to come here for one simple reason," Mayor Kevin White declared. "Our facilities are just not big enough." Expand the Hynes, the BRA predicted, and 3,500 jobs would be created. By the time the enlarged Hynes opened in 1988, the experts were forecasting 8,000 permanent new jobs, 2,000 new hotel rooms, and a surge of $500 million into the local economy. The new Hynes, they said, would attract 60-plus conventions a year. Attendance would hit 500,000.
It didn't happen. "The impact of the Hynes after 1988 is open to serious question," concluded the Pioneer Institute in an eye-opening 1997 study. "In terms of hotel development, room night consumption, number of meetings, and hotel employment, the results of the Hynes expansion have been almost nil. In fact, during the period when the convention center was closed for renovation, there was no drop in Boston's hotel occupancy. Nor was there a boom when the expanded Hynes reopened in 1988."
So here we go again. More construction, more rosy rhetoric -- and more disappointment when the new convention center fails to meet to its boosters' promises. The Hynes has lost money from the day it opened its doors. The beached whale will be a loser too -- not just the billion-dollars-and-then-some it will cost to build it, but the inevitable deficits it will run up each year. I give it about a decade. And then the droning will resume: If only we had a bigger convention center . . .
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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