Power Lunch: Don Chiofaro

It’s been 28 years since the downtown developer built anything in Boston. Will this finally be his year?

don chiofaro

Photograph by Ken Richardson

For years, Don Chiofaro tried to replace his hulking Harbor Garage on the Greenway with a hotel and an office complex. And for years, the late Tom Menino blocked him. Times change. In June, the Boston Redevelopment Authority announced that it would allow a building up to 600 feet high on the site. Is it a done deal? Erick Trickey met with the developer, 69, for lunch at the Palm inside International Place, built by Chiofaro in 1987. Above them, a mural depicted Chiofaro dangling from the top of his building.

That mural…

I had nothing to do with it. It was all Wally [Ganzi, the Palm’s co-owner]. And I just want to say that this isn’t my typical lunch.


I’ll make Italian food—meatballs, cutlets, salad—and eat in the International Place courtyard. That way I can meet everyone who comes through the building: tenants, brokers bringing tenants. I’m a little affected by the fact that my father was a beat cop. He knew everybody on his beat.

How did you get the idea for the Harbor Garage project?

In 2006, the economy was pretty good. We were looking for places where you could do a big deal. We just walked around, and we looked at the Harbor Garage. Nobody was really looking at it because it was behind the [old Central] Artery. But it has the best views in town.

Tom Menino once said your chances of getting city approval for the Harbor Garage project were “about as likely as an 80-degree day in January.” What was the beef between you two?

[Laughs.] I do not know. I’ve been asked that question many, many times.

Five years ago, you said the city planning process was a “charade,” and you needed honest answers from the man “pulling the strings.” What do you think now?

I’m totally focused on the future. Having said that, there are things we’re doing now that are different. And in general, the Walsh administration has been open to a lot of new ideas. The consensus is that there are better things to do on that site than park cars.

A lot of Bostonians want good architecture and an interesting waterfront, not more of those faceless Seaport buildings. How is your project going to be different?

Architecture is really important and very subjective. There’s no right answer. But when you build on a great site, you’re creating the kind of project that’s visible, one that tells people who you think you are as a city. It’s an opportunity that you shouldn’t miss. This project has got to be bold and different, but it’s also got to work.

This has been a long process.

Developing is not a simple business. You start it at one time, and the world goes like this [makes a wavelike motion with his hand]. If we got all the approvals today, and we started this building in two years, it’d still take another three or four years to build it. What’s the world going to be like five years from now? Will there be a global disruption so that no tenants want to take space? It’s a risky business.

What are your plans for retirement?

The architect for [the Harbor Garage project], Gene Kohn, of Kohn Pedersen Fox, is about 85. If I called him up today on his cell phone, he could be in London, and if I asked, “Would you come to Boston for a meeting?” [he’d say,] “Yeah.” Gene and guys like Gene, who are deep into their careers, they’re totally involved—that’s what I want for myself.