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Why the Boston Museum Might Be Wrong for Parcel 9

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Last spring, we covered the The Boston Globe's endorsement of the Boston Museum proposal for Parcel 9, the vacant property created by the Big Dig atop the highway tunnels in downtown Boston. A closer look at the request for proposals (RFPs), the proposals themselves, and The Globe endorsement raises serious doubts about the efficacy of designating the nonprofit, with a mission to develop a museum celebrating Boston's history, as the parcel's developer.

Last December, MassDOT, the property's owner, issued an RFP for the parcel that required ground-floor market space to provide a permanent home for Haymarket pushcart vendors. This was in line with Mayor Menino's call for a "market district" in this part of Boston. Proposals included apartments; a hotel; restaurants; and the Boston Museum.

The Globe asserted that Parcel 9 is "ideal for a public building" and we don't disagree. However, the museum would charge $12 for admission, largely serving tourists visiting nearby attractions along the Freedom Trail as well as Faneuil Hall and the New England Aquarium. The museum would be no more public than the restaurants and hotel contained in other proposals for Parcel 9, each of which include the ground-floor market space for the Haymarket pushcarts.

The Globe said that "leaders of the Boston Museum...believe there is strong donor interest in the museum, but that philanthropists don't want to set aside funds until they know it's going to happen. Getting the state designation as developer of Parcel 9 would unlock tens of millions of dollars, museum organizers claim." This claim isn't credible in light of what has happened following the museum's 2005 designation by the state for the nearby Parcel 12. The museum was supposed to have been subsidized by up to $31 million in state funds to cover the highway ramps on the site (unused, these funds were "swept back" into the state budget). As for its own fundraising after the designation, according to a May letter to MassDOT from Frank Keefe, the museum's C.E.O., it "has raised over $7 million over the last several years."

Why would the state consider a proposal for Parcel 9 after the nonprofit failed to perform on Parcel 12? It probably has less to do with "donor interest" than it does with the influence Keefe wields with the state as a former secretary of administration and finance under Governor Dukakis and as the former director of the Massachusetts Office of State Planning.

As The Globe pointed out, "doubts persist about the ability of museum planners to raise the roughly $75 million necessary to begin construction". The newspaper failed to mention that, according to page 10 of the museum proposal, it will cost $150 million to complete the project. This means the museum must raise an additional $143 million for the Parcel 9 location to open. This seems unlikely, given the donations the museum has received in the seven years since designation as developer of Parcel 12 and given the increasingly stiff competition for donors from from other nonprofits in the area, including the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy and the Boston Public Market, planned for nearby Parcel 7.

The Globe suggested a solution: "give the museum the designation for a limited period— say, two years—with a mandate to raise funds." But as we have seen in recent years, real estate market cycles can change at a moment's notice, leaving failed real estate projects in their wakes.

Downtown Boston's white-hot real estate market provides the vehicle to deliver a permanent home to the Haymarket pushcart vendors, enliven the Greenway, and generate a financial return to the state as well as tax dollars for the city. This is already the second round of proposals for Parcel 9, after an RFP released by the Turnpike Authority (predecessor to MassDOT) failed in 2009. Can the city and the state afford to wait for a nonprofit with a mediocre performance record as well as an untested program and business model? — A. Contributor

· No. 9, No. 9: First Two Proposals for Greenway Parcel [Curbed Boston]

Parcel 9

Blackstone Street, Boston, MA