Digging Into the Filene's Hole

When I set out reporting my story this month on Steven Roth and the hole he and his company, Vornado Realty Trust, own at the Filene’s site in Downtown Crossing, lots of people laughed at me. Usually when people laugh at me it’s because I said something stupid or missed my mouth with a can of Diet Coke (this happens more than I would like), but in this case, it was simply because I called up and said, “Hi, I’m working on a story about the Filene’s site over in Downtown Crossing.”That’s how much of an ongoing saga the Filene’s site has been. Trying to talk about it was sort of like talking about the Red Sox’s World Series chances before 2004: sure, it was technically possible that the Sox could have won the title, but they hadn’t done it in so long that it seemed impossible. By the same token, the Filene’s situation has been such an intractable mess, that to even discuss it like a thing that one day might not be an intractable mess seemed fanciful.

And yet, once the person on the other line got the last chuckles out, we got down to discussing the fate of Downtown Crossing and why Roth and Vornado were acting the way they were. The goal of this story was not just to chronicle the history of the Filene’s project, but to shed some light on Roth, the chairman of Vornado, and his firm. After all, as you’ll find in the piece, the Downtown Crossing situation is at a stalemate: Mayor Menino wants one thing for the site and Vornado apparently wants another. We know pretty well how Menino operates. But Vornado, which does almost all of its business in New York and Washington, is much less well understood in Boston. Roth is an especially foreign character here.

I found out quickly there’s a good reason for that: few people like to talk about Roth. Throughout his career, he’s remained famously closed off to the media — in fact, people from Vornado rarely talk. Plenty of the people (outside of the company) I called simply refused to speak with me about him, and those who did often requested anonymity. As one of the most powerful figures in real estate in the U.S., Roth is apparently well feared. (If nothing else, this story produced one startling revelation: there is at least one topic about which Donald Trump, a sometimes rival of Roth, will decline to talk to the press about.)

The most inane aspect of the reporting was actually dealing with Vornado’s PR people. After explaining to me that nobody from Vornado would speak to me for my story, the flack I was dealing with told me that she’d be happy to fact check anything I wrote about Vornado in my piece. This seemed sort of strange, because confirming facts requires engaging with the actual reporting. To test things out at one point, I asked her to check the fact that Vornado was still asking for around $100 million to sell the Filene’s site (this is something that’s been fairly widely reported and multiple sources confirmed). Alas, she said this was not the type of fact she could check. What type of fact she could check? I’m not sure. Maybe how to spell “Vornado.” She did helpfully correct me on Vornado’s market cap when I accidentally mentioned it as being $20 billion instead of $15.7 billion, at the time. So that was something.

Really, though, it wasn’t the PR person’s fault. It was all about Vornado and how close they play it. You get the feeling that if Steve Roth’s wife called him to say “Happy Birthday,” he’d give her a no-comment. I’m obviously biased here, but considering what Roth and Vornado have put Boston through, I don’t think it’s a particularly fair policy. They owe the city an explanation for what they’ve done with Downtown Crossing. And while I’ve put together what I believe is a pretty good picture of Vornado and its chairman, it’s still incomplete without Roth or any his underlings answering any questions. Hopefully, one day they will. I’m not holding my breath.

Read the full story: Pitt Boss, Boston magazine, September 2011.