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The Last Angry Mayor: Menino's Best Real Estate Showdown

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One evening in early March 2010, Vornado Realty Trust Chairman Steven Roth, "one of the more intriguing, bull-headed, coarse-spoken figures on the New York City real estate scene," explained to an audience at the Columbia architecture school why he waited so long to build the Bloomberg LP headquarters on a site he owned in Manhattan: "Why did I do nothing? Because I was thinking in my own awkward way, that the more the building was a blight, the more the governments would want this to be redeveloped; the more help they would give us when the time came. And they did."

The remarks quickly reverberated up the coast to Boston, where Mayor Tom Menino fumed at Roth in private and in print. Why? Because Roth's Vornado was the long-time owner of the old Filene's site in Downtown Crossing, a gaping hole that all but taunted the mayor's plans for revitalizing the area. Here was the owner of said hole bragging about how he got New York City to incentivize him to build by keeping another hole vacant for just long enough. It was too much for Hizzoner, who was never a fan of Roth's to begin with. He wrote Roth a letter that was picked up by the press in both Boston and New York:

The quotes attributed to you on this subject are simply outrageous. Admitting that you embraced a deliberate policy of long-term blight, at a major commercial location in New York City, exhibits a callous disregard for the well-being of the city and its people. ... The notion that you would purposefully cause this to occur—not due to financing difficulties or other problems beyond your control, but as an intentional cynical ploy to extract concessions from the public sector—is inexcusable. Menino then threw muscle behind his rhetoric. He put the word out that if Roth wouldn't fill the hole, then Menino would block any casino-resort license at Eastie's Suffolk Downs, of which Vornado happened to own 20 percent. The mayor also directed the Boston Redevelopment Authority to begin exploring eminent domain options for the Filene's site; if Roth & Co. wouldn't build something, then, goddammit, Boston would seize the property and sell it to someone who would. "You can't make a fool out of the city with a big hole downtown," Menino told the Boston Globe. "I can't allow that to happen."

Both moves got the developer's attention. Roth and Vornado began by late 2011 exploring both a sale of the Filene's site or a development there. In the end, it was a little bit of both. In February 2012, Vornado announced that it had sold a controlling stake in the site to Millennium Partners, another New York-based developer. Millennium Partners in turn announced the construction of what could easily end up the most lucrative residential building in Boston history, Millennium Tower.

Some might say that Tom Menino's rivalry with developer Don Chiofaro over the fate of the Harbor Garage was the late mayor's greatest. That was more of a steamroll, though, not really a showdown. The Filene's confrontation, played out publicly as it was in two major media centers, with strong words and strong-arming (and ending with such a significant win), that's a rivalry for the ages.
· Steve Roth, Uncorked [NY Observer]
· Boston Mayor Outraged by Roth's 'Intentional Cynical Ploy' [NY Observer]
· Downtown Crossing's Filene's Site, East Boston Casino: Tied? [Curbed Boston]
· Filene's Site to Be Filled! Ritz Developer Behind New Tower [Curbed Boston]
· Three Millennium Tower Penthouses Sell for Over $9M Each [Curbed Boston]
· Big-Time Downtown Project Aquarium Place Dead by the Water [Curbed Boston]

Old Filene's Site

426 Washington Street, Boston, MA