Developer Conceives Design Plan for Site of Former Columbus Center Site

A Boston real estate development firm is conceiving a preliminary design plan for the site of the ill-fated Columbus Center project, even though the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has yet to release a Request for Proposals for its 16-19 air-rights parcels that span the Massachusetts Turnpike between the Back Bay and South End.

Jim Keefe, a Trinity Financial principal, detailed the vision for the project at Monday’s meeting of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association Licensing and Planning committees at the South Cove Apartments, which he said has been dubbed “Midtown Boston” in an effort to distance itself from Columbus Center – the abandoned proposal from the 2000s for a sprawling, 1.4-million square-foot, $800 million mixed-use development.

“The epitaph for Columbus Center was that the market shifted after permits and other hurdles were cleared,” Keefe said. “We have spent the past two years meeting with people to reengage them with what was a contentious permitting process around Columbus Center. We wanted to take a different approach by meeting with the neighborhood…to get a sense of what they might be willing to accept as basics for the RFP.”

Keefe described this approach as “quixotic,” adding that the company has already enlisted the Chicago architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for the project, despite the fact there is no assurance Trinity would be awarded the contract, if an RFP is indeed issued for the parcels.

“We’re way out there on this,” Keefe conceded. “It’s what we call the ‘long game.’”

Trinity’s proposal for the 2.6-million square-foot project includes “decking over” the site, as well as relocating Frieda Garcia Park from its current home at 45 Stanhope St. and tripling its size, Keefe said, adding that the Animal Rescue League “dead space” could also be activated as part of the plan.

The proposed development complex, which Keefe described as “primarily office and residential,” would include a 425-foot office tower situated towards Clarendon Street and the John Hancock Tower while heights facing Cortes Street would be limited to 60 feet and 70 feet at the corner. A “cut-through” would also be built between Cortes and Chandler streets to facilitate access to the planned development at its midpoints.

“We’re trying to tie together a neighborhood that was essentially disrupted by the train tracks and the highway,” Keefe said. “We’re going to have one of the smaller carbon footprints…and be less car-dependent than any development in the city.”

Keefe said Trinity would still need to undertake a “significant traffic mitigation plan” for the site and surrounding city blocks, and that the “overall density, height and setbacks [for the project] still need to be discussed.”

Still, Keefe said the project provides an opportunity for better and more cohesive city planning than he said was implemented during the respective developments of the Seaport and the Ink Block.

Meanwhile, Keefe speculated that MassDOT would issue an RFP for the parcels “in the next six month,” but even so, he said it would likely be another five years before the first building is erected on the site and 10 years before the project’s completion.

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