© 2007 The Boston Globe

March 28, 2007

History lesson
by Steve Bailey, Globe Columnist

O, Fan Pier! Is there another spot in this burg we call Boston with such a delicious, twisted history? A wind-swept parking lot with a harbor view that has promised so much and frustrated so many? And now history, deliciously, is threatening to repeat itself.

Turn the clock back nearly two decades. The year is 1990, and Anthony Athanas, the storied and cranky Boston restaurateur, had just lost a stunning court decision to his former partners to develop Fan Pier, the Pritzkers of Chicago. Athanas made a deal with the Pritzkers only to back out when he decided he wasn't being adequately compensated. The Pritzkers sued and won a judgment of nearly $60 million in damages and interest.

Facing ruin, Athanas' old friend, US Representative Joe Moakley, as good an inside player as this town has seen, stepped in. About 18 months after the judgment, Moakley engineered a surprise deal to put the new federal courthouse on Fan Pier rather than downtown where it belonged. Athanas got $34 million for the courthouse site, which he turned over to the Pritzkers along with the rest of Fan Pier. The key: Athanas got to keep his restaurants. And the city got a building block for the South Boston Waterfront.

Now, all these years later, Fan Pier remains the same wind-swept parking lot it was then -- save for the stunning new Institute of Contemporary Art. My question: Is Tom Menino taking a page straight from the Joe Moakley playbook?

What Joe Fallon, the latest in a line of would-be Fan Pier builders, needs more than anything is a tenant. And he and his friend, the mayor, have their eyes on a big one: the FBI, currently in the market for 270,000 square feet of space for its new Boston office. Menino told me last week that he had recently pitched the FBI and the Government Services Administration, the FBI's landlord, on Fan Pier as a site. "The federal courthouse and the FBI, right next to each other," Menino told me. "What better location could you have?"

Can Menino pull it off? The good old days of city building using the Fed's urban renewal checkbook is gone. But government buildings, even big government leases, remain a viable strategy. Think of Government Center, with its collection of city, state, and federal offices downtown. Now think of a new Government Center on the waterfront, including the federal courthouse, a new City Hall, and the FBI. That is what the mayor is thinking.

Fallon says the chat about town that his banker, MassMutual Financial Group, is getting anxious to see something happening on the huge $115 million investment on Fan Pier is baloney. "I have more than enough anxiety for both of us," he says. Fallon says he will break ground on an office building, even without tenants, and a hotel and condo building around the first of the year. MassMutual says it is "pleased with its partnership with Fallon."

The FBI is hardly a perfect fit on Fan Pier. This was supposed to be the jewel of the waterfront, a place filled with great architecture and great public spaces. In our post-Oklahoma City, post-9/11 world, the FBI's requirements favor security, not cafes. The FBI's bid proposal, just for instance, calls for the adjacent parking garage to be above ground; all the parking on Fan Pier is supposed to be underground. But, then, it is a tenant, which Fan Pier could sorely use.

The deadline for FBI bids is Friday. Fallon says he will definitely bid, but knows there are some FBI requirements he can't meet because of the restrictions on Fan Pier. His ace in the hole, if he has one, is the mayor. Can Tom Menino deliver for his friend on the Fan Pier as Joe Moakley delivered for his friend nearly two decades ago?

And is that good, or bad, for the waterfront?

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist.
He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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