Arrested Development

Thirty years ago, Don Chiofaro built Boston’s largest office complex. These days he likes doing hot yoga, communing with whales, and laying the groundwork for constructing the city’s next iconic skyscraper. So why does the mayor have such a problem with that?

By Billy Baker | Boston Magazine |
Don Chiofaro with a model of one of his proposals for the Greenway. Photo by Chad Griffith

Don Chiofaro with a model of one of his proposals for the Greenway. Photo by Chad Griffith

DON CHIOFARO THE DEVELOPER has a big mustache and forearms like railroad ties and says he’s 5-foot-9 but is lying a little bit there.

Tommy Lee Jones, his teammate on the Harvard football team in the late ’60s, says Chiofaro is about as wide as he is tall. He seems to be in constant motion, even when he is sitting down, and when he is actually moving — he likes to walk and talk — Chiofaro often switches direction for emphasis. In midstride, he’ll stop and, as if the abrupt stop were not enough, smack the arm of his companion and say, “The point I want to make is…” And then he’ll make his point.

He is known, he concedes, as something of a “tough guy.” The son of a Belmont cop, he lifts weights and plays on a rugby team that recently competed in Argentina. He thinks of real estate development as a game — “Donnyball,” as one of his former Harvard Business School professors calls it — and says everything he knows about development he learned as a linebacker: strategic force, applied quickly. His company logo is a ram. When he’s not talking, he is often adjusting his waistband and crotch, like an athlete between plays.

He’s said to be the basis for Charlie Croker, the main character in Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, who is a larger-than-life former football player and alpha-male real estate developer.

His critics say the problem with Chiofaro is that you never know what you’re going to get. Some days, he’s laying on his considerable charm and playing nice; on other days, he’s a steamroller. Every Friday morning, he does hot yoga. On Saturday mornings, he puts on old clothes and takes his ugly little boat out into Gloucester Harbor and pulls his seven lobster traps from the sea floor by hand. After that’s done, he often likes to motor 11 miles out to the edge of the Stellwagen Bank and sit alone and “have a picnic with the whales.” He takes Italian classes. In the past he’s studied Latin dance and flying trapeze. He’s recently gotten into Zumba. He is pretty certain that he can still kick your ass, but his father taught him “how and when to be tough.” He is now 64 years old and the most talked-about developer in Boston, even though he hasn’t built anything in the city in nearly two decades.

His legend is built as much on the fact that he’s an unapologetic showman as it is on his buildings. In college, Jones convinced him to play a couple of bit parts in a production of Coriolanus. When I asked him if this was his only acting experience, he smiled and said, “I do it every day.” His career is one long piece of public theater that began in his thirties, when he built a 600-foot office tower on the outskirts of the Financial District and named it International Place. At the time, he wore his Harvard football jersey and carried a boom box playing the Rocky soundtrack during a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority. In 2004, when the New York real estate firm Tishman Speyer attempted a hostile takeover of International Place, Chiofaro made a big deal out of the fact that he was one of the only developers in the city who still ran a building he’d built. He made the episode into a protect-the-castle pageant and cast Tishman Speyer as the “pirates” from “Gotham,” which played well in those days of the Sox-Yankees “Evil Empire” battle. (He was able to fend off the “pirates,” but it cost him a ton of money, a bankruptcy, and a chunk of his stake in International Place.)

The office complex is the largest in the city, yet Chiofaro makes an effort to know the 7,000 people who work there. When I first met him, at a table in the atrium where he sits each morning with his longtime partner, Ted Oatis, he was constantly stopping people to chat. By most accounts, they love him. Mary Ann Milian, who worked at the Au Bon Pain near the waterfall in the glass atrium for nine years, has a Lhasa Apso puppy named Chia Faro. On several occasions, Chiofaro told people I was a reporter and he wanted them to tell me about the building. In that awkward moment where they’d edge toward a seat at the table, wondering if he meant right now, Chiofaro would say, matter-of-factly, “You’re not gonna stay.”

Right now, Chiofaro is engaged in his most elaborate production to date. And it’s centered on the giant red X he had placed on a garage he owns along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Symbolically, the X represents something between a pledge of great possibility and pure propaganda; it’s part of a very public fight with a personality as large as Chiofaro’s own, Mayor Tom Menino. The X is a question about the future of the Greenway and the city, and many wonder if the fighting and the personalities and the egos are getting in the way of a very big idea. The person who’s most certain that’s the case is Don Chiofaro.

 
One of my more distinct childhood memories involves a cold January morning in 1985. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and I was eight years old. That day, my father woke me early at our house in Southie, bundled me up, and took me down to Fort Point Channel to stand in a huge crowd near the Children’s Museum. It was one of those things fathers do because “you may never see it again in your lifetime.” We had come to watch an explosion.

Across the water was a building, the High Street Garage, and it had two large football helmets on it representing the teams playing in the big game. After the countdown, the charges started. Slowly, everything caved in; then it was gone. For a kid, it was impossibly exciting: The city had literally changed before my eyes. It was a transformation that, as my father had prophesied, I have not seen again in my lifetime.
That was Don Chiofaro’s first big show. He was just 39 years old at the time, and the demolition was done to make way for a piece of International Place.

After Harvard and business school, Chiofaro spent a week on Wall Street, decided it wasn’t for him, and came back home to do an apprenticeship at the real estate development firm Cabot, Cabot & Forbes (where he met Oatis). Once they went out on their own, the two developed an office park in Westborough. Then, after being approached to come in on a downtown project with a group of developers, Chiofaro managed to negotiate his way into taking over what would become International Place. The explosion and the football helmets and the audacity of building a skyscraper in his thirties are vintage Chiofaro. He’s not interested in buildings, he likes to say. He’s interested in ideas.

 

The story of the future of Boston used to be about what was going to happen when the Big Dig was completed and the Central Artery came down. Most of that happened by 2005. What grew in place of the Expressway was the Greenway, and it has been underwhelming. It’s certainly better than what was there, but that’s not much of an endorsement. The lively public space that was envisioned has yet to materialize, and a lot of that has to do with what’s been left behind. For along that swath are many buildings, and those buildings were not designed to adorn a park; in many cases, those buildings represent the ugly necessities of urban planning — i.e., parking lots — that were once hidden next to an elevated highway. To truly “activate” the Greenway, as they say in planning circles, those parcels need to evolve.

Five years ago, just after the highway was dismantled, Chiofaro took a good, long look at the Harbor Garage. He was not in the parking-lot game, so he went to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for a conversation. He wanted to find out what he could build — on the roof, at ground level — if he bought the garage. The BRA, which has the unusual role of being the city’s planning agency and economic development arm, told Chiofaro that they, too, hated the garage; they would like it if he tore it down and did something that could activate the Greenway and better link it to the waterfront and the aquarium.

In the long story of Chiofaro and City Hall, that was the last time both sides agreed on something.

In 2007, near the height of the commercial real estate market, Chiofaro, with Prudential as his partner, bought the garage for $153 million. At the time, zoning at the site was limited to 155 feet. (The garage is just 70 feet tall.) But Chiofaro and Oatis say they received draft guidelines in June 2006 stating that the maximum height would be increased to 400 feet — the height of the Harbor Towers next door — and soon after hired renowned architect Bill Pedersen to come up with a conceptual design. (The BRA insists that it is unaware of the supposed draft guidelines cited by Chiofaro and Oatis, noting that the agency didn’t hire a consultant to create the document until September 2008.)

Even at 400 feet, the project would not work financially, Chiofaro believed. The garage in question, which has long-term contracts with the Harbor Towers and charges the public $35 to park for more than 80 minutes, pulls in $8.5 million a year in profits, according to Chiofaro.

For a new development, which would involve burying all that parking beneath the garage even while construction was going on, Chiofaro was going to need density. In this case, that meant height. Big height. According to a study Chiofaro commissioned from the consulting firm Byrne McKinney & Associates, any new development would need to be at least 500 feet tall to make economic sense. As a result, over the next few months there were more discussions with the BRA, and different designs were tested, ranging from a single 1,000-foot tower to two towers. In July 2008 Pedersen, Chiofaro, and Oatis went to the BRA with a $10,000 model placed into a scale model of the city that the agency maintains. The design called for two towers of differing heights, connected by a soaring arch that reached 775 feet.

Chiofaro and Oatis describe a room that was excited by the proposal. They say words such as “iconic” were being thrown around by Kairos Shen, the BRA’s chief planner. Though they remember Shen saying the design would need to come down in height, they also recall him saying it was close. (The BRA did not make Shen available for an interview for this article.)

But John Palmieri, the BRA director, remembers that meeting differently. “From the very beginning, we expressed concern about height,” Palmieri says, “and we said, ‘Don, you need to back off until we get our findings.’”

Those findings would be coming from a study Mayor Menino had commissioned a few months earlier to look at how the city should zone height and density along various parcels of the Greenway. Palmieri says Chiofaro knew this and “was hoping that because he had a plan for us to review that he’d be able to get out ahead of the study.”

Oatis gets very emotional when discussing that meeting. “Kairos says we heard what we wanted to hear,” he says. “I say, ‘You’re goddamn right I did, and it came out of your mouth!’”

Chiofaro and Oatis say they were told the next step would be to take their design to the mayor. “That’s when the screen went blank,” says Oatis.

It was then the developers believe the mayor versus Chiofaro clash began, a conflict that would come to overshadow the merits of their project.

 

Mayor Menino’s involvement with the project is either nothing or everything, depending on whom you talk to. Dot Joyce, the mayor’s spokesperson, says Menino’s opposition has nothing to do with personalities, and never has. “It’s about what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers who spent billions of dollars to bury the Expressway…. He’s said several times that he doesn’t want to Manhattanize the Greenway.” Menino has also said it’s not his job to help developers become “gazillionaires,” and told the Boston Herald that Chiofaro’s prospects for getting approval were “about as likely as an 80-degree day in January.”

Chiofaro believes the issue has become personal, but says he has no idea why. The best guess came from former Globe columnist Steve Bailey. In 2006, when Chiofaro was looking into buying the garage, he went to court and asked for an abatement on the property taxes for International Place — a request that would later be denied. The developer thought the city had the complex overvalued, and says he asked for the abatement out of a fiduciary responsibility to the tenants, who shouldered the cost. Bailey wrote that Chiofaro’s actions were politically unwise, on the off chance that the company were ever to want cooperation from the city. Bailey wasn’t alone in this belief: When the mayor announced his Greenway study at a gala luncheon in the Seaport Hotel, Oatis says, attendees at neighboring tables told thedeveloper that the mayor was out to “screw” them.

 

ONE DAY THIS SUMMER, I sat in the 46th-floor Chiofaro Company conference room inside One International Place. On the table was a scale model of downtown.

In the model of downtown was one empty spot: the site of the Harbor Garage. Also on the table were 16 white scale buildings, each a variation of Pedersen’s design, which a dozen bigtime design professionals from the region had gathered to discuss. (Per Chiofaro’s orders, their identities were kept off the record as a condition of allowing me into the meeting.)

As a group, they were partial to Chiofaro’s argument that density was the solution to the site, the key to transforming that section of the Greenway. Every time Pedersen placed a model — each consisting of an office tower and a hotel/condominium tower — into the blank space, the group would talk about things like geometry, “energy,” and sightlines. The ugliest of the forms was a simple block, which represented the 200-foot-tall box that would result if they simply built on top of the existing garage.

During the meeting, Chiofaro lounged in an office chair in the corner. It was clear he was more interested in the group’s dynamic than in the actual presentation. As the meeting wrapped, he pulled back to the table, thanked everyone for their input, and summed up his strategy. “We know we can’t get to where we want to be without a lot of people thinking it’s a good idea,” he said.
Don Chiofaro is trying to charm the people of Boston. He’s very good at this. And in the time since his much-debated meeting with the BRA, he has taken his fight with City Hall out into the open. He placed the big red X on the Harbor Garage to symbolize the opening that would be created by a glass-enclosed “winter garden” between the proposed towers. It was a savvy bit of PR, because one of the chief problems with the Greenway is how easy it is for a visitor to walk its length and never realize that just on the other side of the buildings is the Atlantic Ocean.

In May Chiofaro held a press conference during which he called the entire city review process a “charade” and said the whole thing came down to “the person pulling the strings on this process, and we all know who that is.” The Globe described what followed as “stunned silence.”

A short time later, the BRA released the Greenway study. It was not what Chiofaro had hoped for. At the Harbor Garage site, the guideline called for a 200-foot limit on height (not the 400-foot allowance he claims was discussed). The city has shown no signs of budging, certainly not to triple that height.

Chiofaro says simply: “Okay, then you’re stuck with a garage that everyone hates.” But he is not quitting; what he can’t get from City Hall, he’s hoping to get in the court of public opinion. He’s convinced he has a plan that is so great, so iconic, and so unavoidably good for the city and the Greenway that City Hall will have no choice but to side with him.

On a Monday in September, I crowded into his conference room along with a scrum of other media to watch Chiofaro do his thing. “I’m Don Chiofaro, the controversial developer,” he said to laughter as he began another press conference. He presented Pedersen’s latest design, which he was now calling Aquarium Place, and emphasized that the new proposal was “a lot smaller” but still “grand” (though he avoided saying that the tallest tower was still 615 feet tall until he was directly asked). He said he hoped it would be the starting point for a new dialogue with the city. The most striking revelation in the press conference was the fact that the previous Friday, Chiofaro said he had received a last-minute call for a meeting that same afternoon with the BRA. He said he couldn’t make it because he had a family obligation. When a reporter questioned him about the methodology of presenting his plans to the city through the media, Chiofaro grinned. “It’s a little different,” he said. “It’s a little unusual.”
City Hall, it seems is very aware of the charms of Don Chiofaro. His public campaign has not been without success. Brian McGrory, the Globe columnist who has written in favor of the project, wrote that he answered the phone one day to a caller who said, “Bloop. Bloop. Bloop.” As he was about to hang up, he realized the air-bubble sound effects were coming from the mouth of Mayor Menino. “You’re in the tank for Chiofaro,” the mayor told McGrory. Once, when I walked the Greenway with him, four strangers, including a Harbor Towers resident, stopped him to offer unsolicited support for the project. (Many in the Harbor Towers, however, have adamantly opposed the project; 120 of the units would have their views greatly affected.) Chiofaro likes to give out rubber bracelets that identify people as a “Harbor Garage Friend,” and usually wears three on his arm every day.

When I went to City Hall to meet with BRA director John Palmieri, he told me two things. The first was that the height Chiofaro wanted to build to was never going to happen on that site. The second was, “Don’t be a dupe.”

Palmieri and Peter Gori, the BRA’s point man on all things Greenway, carefully walked me through the Greenway study, the various fringe parcels, and the shadows that would be created by additional height on the Harbor Garage site. The current shadows, which last until 10 a.m., would extend until noon under Chiofaro’s proposal and then shift to cover the area around the aquarium and the Marriott Long Wharf. (Chiofaro calls these claims bogus.) Eventually I got around to asking a couple of questions Chiofaro encouraged me to ask. The first: What do you want on that site? Something not unlike Rowes Wharf, they said. The second: What’s a Boston building? Kairos Shen, the BRA’s chief planner, has said he wants a building that fits into Boston’s DNA, to which Bill Pedersen, Chiofaro’s architect, literally throws up his hands. “I have a hard time understanding what a Boston building is,” he says.

Palmieri had difficulty answering that question. After giving a vague statement about size and scale and design and massing, he ultimately echoed former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous take on obscenity: “We’ll know it when we see it,” he said.

When I asked about Chiofaro’s claim that they were giving him no option other than simply keeping the garage as is, an alternative no one wants, they stressed that after all these years working to open up that area, they were in no rush; that the area needs time to mature, to evolve on its own. “On this particular site on this particular day, we can afford to wait,” said Gori.
After leaving City Hall that day, I walked over to International Place, where I ran into Chiofaro in the lobby. He’d just come from a Zumba class, and we went back out the door to the North End for lunch at Pagliuca’s. He ordered a bowl of soup and a side of meatballs, and when I told him what had happened at the BRA, he just smiled. He was in a playful mood, though he seemed in no rush to answer my question: When do you just admit it’s over? What’s the strategy then?

“What we would ultimately do when the doors close entirely,” he said when he realized I wasn’t going to drop it, “I can’t answer. I don’t know.”

“Do you just keep trying to knock down the door?” I asked.

“I don’t believe the door is closed,” he said. “I think it’s wide open.” This stuff with the mayor and the BRA, these are just problems. What’s the strategy? “It’s not to hit the wall so many times that it shatters to dust,” he said. Then he told me the story of Fred Salvucci.

When Chiofaro was preparing to build the second tower at International Place, there was a problem. The Big Dig was now under way, and the tower would be too close to an off-ramp from the Central Artery. Relocating the ramp, which Chiofaro was required to do at his expense to move the project forward, would put it in the way of the building. “We were banging heads for months,” says Salvucci, who at the time was the secretary of transportation for the state and is now on the faculty at MIT. “If he could have just run me over, I think he would have. But he couldn’t.”

Chiofaro told me the story of his battle with Salvucci with one goal — to show that he’s pragmatic and willing to work with government. “Don starts out with a pretty gruff appearance and appears to be uncompromising, but at the end of the day, he is willing to compromise,” Salvucci says. And what was a very public fight between the two actually changed because of the personal. During the fight, Chiofaro’s father, Sam, died; Salvucci showed up at the funeral home. A short time after, when Salvucci’s mother died, “Don was practically the first one at the wake.”

“That’s an important distinction,” Salvucci says. “You can sometimes personalize these things and people start viewing each other as enemies, and that’s never fruitful.” In the end, the replacement ramp was built, in a bit of complicated engineering, resting on the International Place garage. When it was complete, Chiofaro threw a huge party. He marched down the ramp with a band playing John Philip Sousa music and had Sidewalk Sam do a huge chalk mural depicting his battle with Salvucci.

After we finished lunch, we walked back to International Place along the Greenway. Spending time with Chiofaro, I often felt like that eight-year-old kid again, looking at this city for the first time…because that’s how Chiofaro sees it. One day at International Place, Chiofaro took me onto the roof of the first tower and the terrace that surrounds the dome atop the second tower — just because it was fun. Another time he and Oatis drove me out to New England Biolabs in Ipswich, which they built for Chiofaro’s brother-in-law, simply because it’s awesome. In September, Chiofaro took me to a Harvard football game with Tommy Lee Jones. “Are you having fun?” he asked repeatedly, which to him is the whole point.

That attitude extends even to his fight with the city. When a City Hall source was quoted as saying Chiofaro had a “tin ear,” Chiofaro sent BRA director Palmieri a Photoshopped picture of himself as the Tin Man. For him, it’s all a winking game; he says the BRA is just being dispatched to run interference for the mayor because the mayor doesn’t like him. “They’ve got a couple of sound bites: wind, shadow, height, Manhattanization. They’re all about fear-mongering,” he says of the city. But this is a tough business, he likes to say. If it were easy, everyone would do it. These complications are not barriers; they are just problems to be solved, and Don Chiofaro likes to paint himself as the answer, the man who is here to rescue the Greenway and take Boston into the future.

The Harbor Garage has become his quest, which is fitting for a man who sometimes describes himself as a poet. One Saturday morning, Chiofaro and I were on his boat, Cruise Control, heading back into the Cape Ann Marina after pulling his lobster traps. I asked him what he would like to see if things went his way and, years from now, he drove his boat down to Boston Harbor to look at what he’d built. He said nothing. I wasn’t sure he heard me over the motors, and after a minute or so I was ready to repeat the question. But then he started speaking. “It will be a unique piece of architectural sculpture,” he began slowly, staring off into the distance. “It will be distinctive. It has the potential to be symbolic of what Boston thinks about itself and its future. We’re knowledge-based leaders. We’re bold. We’re not shy.”

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