If you were Steven Roth, would you say this out loud?
Anyone who's been in downtown Boston in the last couple of years will be familiar with the giant hole in the ground - surrounded by partial let's-preserve-the-past remnants of grand old facade - that has replaced one of our grand old department stores, Filene's.
The hole is surrounded by chain link fence, the grand old facade is shrouded in tarpaulin, and if there's a more depressing, recession-reminder sight in these parts, I don't know what is.
As my gym overlooks it, this particular mote gets in my eye three times a week.
Now, I get that Vornado Realty, the site's developer, got caught up in the downturn. So I get why the project's stalled.
But Vornado's done precious-nothing to make the hole any more attractive. (I really don't count the tarps and the cheesy Christmas wreathes they put up in 2008, but not this past holiday, as anything.)
And now, I guess, we know why.
Apparently, Vornado's betting that keeping a blighted piece of unused property out there will get him more money from the public coffers.
Or so Hizzoner The Mayor is interpreting some recent comments by Vornado's chairman, Steven Roth. (Reported in Tuesday's Boston Globe.)
In speaking to a group at Columbia University:
Roth was quoted as saying he sat on the former Alexander’s Department store in midtown Manhattan in the 1990s, allowing it become blighted in order to squeeze money out of public officials.
Vornado acquired the site after the store closed and, similar to the Filene’s site, left it half demolished before eventually building a glass skyscraper that now houses the Bloomberg financial news company.
“Why did I do nothing?’’ Roth said, according to the Observer. “The more the building was a blight; the more governments would want this to be redeveloped; the more help they would give us when the time came.’’
Mayor Menino has been getting it in the neck for a while because of shortcuts in the permitting and approval processes, taken on Vornado's behalf. These shortcuts apparently meant, among other things, that no one dealt with the "what if's" (as in "what'll we do with the hole in the ground if the bottom falls out of the world?") . So, we end up with this hideous eyesore that no one's responsible for doing anything about.
But Roth's comments have enabled Menino to seize the moral high ground. And, possibly, more than that. He is, in fact, rattling his saber, and has:
...threatened to revoke permits for the stalled Filene’s redevelopment and even take the property by eminent domain.
Although it's not clear whether eminent domain is a true legal possibility, or what, exactly, the city would do with the hole once it eminently domained it, I give the mayor one big "Attaboy, Tommy."
As for Steven Roth: you might think it, you might do it, but why would you publicly tell the Alexander Department Store story? Now, I'm quite sure that Roth isn't giving away a trade secret here. But - given the hole in the ground in Boston - I think you need to be making statements like that like you need a hole in your head (one not covered by blue tarps).
Maybe Roth is just a braggart. Maybe he's got an ulterior motive going here. He obviously didn't get to be one of the richest men in America by being a complete dummy. (At least I don't think so.)
But in this case, I think that he should have heeded the advice of a Boston politico of a far earlier era than Tom Menino.
Martin Lomasney was never the mayor, but he was the Boss Tweed of Boston in the late 19th/early 20th century. He was famous for having said:
"Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."
Yep, Roth would have been a lot better off if he'd just nodded about Alexander's. Or winked, even.