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Still the best plan

11/18/2008, 9:08 a.m.
“I guess the BRA doesn’t intend for...

Still the best plan

“I guess the BRA doesn’t intend for us to build on this site.”

Unwise investments in mortgage-backed securities have caused a global financial crisis. While there has been considerable media coverage of its impact on homeowners, much less attention has been paid to the cessation of major real estate development projects. Developers are unable to borrow the necessary funds to move forward.

In Boston, the following projects have ground to a halt:

• Waterside Place, a 1.1 million-square-foot retail hotel and residential project in South Boston;

• Hayward Place, a $200 million condominium development downtown;

• Columbus Center, an $800 million mixed-use development over the Massachusetts Turnpike;

• South Station Tower, a 40-story glass office tower over South Station;

• the building of a new headquarters for Cambridge drug company Vertex Pharmaceuticals at Fan Pier in South Boston;

• the $700 million redevelopment of the Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing; and

• the Ruggles Place project at Parcel P-3, an 8.7-acre plot on Tremont Street opposite Boston Police Headquarters, intended to include residential, office, retail and medical space, as well as a 1,200- to 1,600-seat performing arts center.

All of the above projects will simply be put on hold until the financial environment improves — except for the Parcel P-3 project. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has notified Elma Lewis Partners LLC that their designation as the parcel’s developer will be revoked. This project was envisioned by the late Elma Lewis, an iconic community leader, to provide a well-financed home for the arts in Roxbury.

Since this land was under the control of the BRA, there was an expensive and exhaustive competition among developers for the right to locate their projects on P-3. The Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, a group of community representatives responsible for advising the city on Roxbury-related matters, supported the Elma Lewis project as the plan offering the highest and best use of the land. It was also projected that future tenants would provide 1,845 permanent jobs.

Competing projects included a big-box retail store like Wal-Mart or Home Depot, housing units and Northeastern University dormitories. There was also some discussion about establishing a professional soccer stadium there that would also serve as a home field for Northeastern’s football team. There is little doubt that the Elma Lewis group offered a proposal that was most beneficial to the Roxbury community.

There was always a sense that wheelers and dealers wanted to use the P-3 site for a project to benefit themselves rather than the community. The BRA’s attempt to decertify the Elma Lewis group is of questionable legality. It also of questionable ethics to move to decertify a legally appointed developer when a credit squeeze affects the whole industry. It is time for Mayor Thomas M. Menino to restrain the BRA from pursuing such an ill-advised strategy.

A plan to lose

We live in a global economy. Wall Street sells tainted mortgage-backed securities and financial systems across the world collapse. Competition and collegiality are restricted by fewer boundaries.

As other countries grow stronger, there is growing uncertainty about how the United States will retain its economic dominance. Much of the nation’s manufacturing capacity has been exported, and America annually sends billions of dollars abroad to pay for oil because of the absence of an effective national energy policy.

One major asset that the U.S. has is the best university system in the world, designed to produce college graduates with the kind of creativity that will keep the country competitive. However, a recent story in the Boston Globe raises questions as to whether the nation can maintain that advantage.

According to the report, Harvard, Brown, Stanford and other top universities are increasing their outreach efforts in China to identify top students for admission with full scholarships. This comes at a time when the U.S. has permitted secondary school education to become less rigorous. If the talented foreign students become American citizens, that’s all well and good. But is it wise to enhance the talents of those who will become the nation’s competitors?