Get ready for Convention Center Expansion 2.0.
The state’s convention hall operator took its first official step Wednesday to revisit the expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center by issuing a request for proposals to design a master plan for the complex’s 70-acre campus.
It’s likely the result will differ significantly from the authority’s previous $1 billion expansion that Governor Charlie Baker put on pause in 2015.
David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, noted the research used to support the original expansion is now roughly a decade old.
“Our neighborhood has changed, our city has changed,” Gibbons said. “But most importantly, the events industry has changed tremendously. This is a feasibility study to see what do we need to be building for.”
But Gibbons did say the convention market may not need as much additional exhibition space as was contemplated in the original expansion; he expects to focus more on adding meeting rooms and ballroom areas. The previous expansion plan would have added nearly 1.3 million square feet to the facility, including a more than 60 percent increase in exhibit hall space.
The new campus master plan would tackle a number of issues beyond the standard convention market analysis: whether to still build two parking garages; how to knit the convention center into the neighborhood; and what is the most logical funding sources.
There has been some concern the authority would spin off some of the 30 acres of underdeveloped real estate it owns, possibly for housing or a retail complex. But Gibbons tried to put such fears to rest.
“We’re not planning the city, we’re planning what we need,” Gibbons said. “Whether that uses all or some of the available real estate is up for discussion. … I’m not looking to develop a shopping center.”
Two state politicians who represent the area, Representative Nick Collins and Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, want a commission that includes various stakeholders to be involved in the convention center’s future.
“Having the private sector tell us what the convention center needs to do with its land, I’m not so sure that’s how it works when it’s for a public purpose,” Collins said. “This is about getting everyone to the table. That’s not happening right now.”
Gibbons said a recent deal to build a 1,000-plus room Omni hotel across the street prompted the campus study. Without those extra rooms, he said, the authority risked losing more business because event planners are frustrated by having to send conventioneers to hotels in the Back Bay and other locations.
Gibbons said there are about 2,200 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center today — not enough to be competitive in the events business.
With land in South Boston racing upward in value, Gibbons said, hotels could be falling out of favor with developers who may prefer high-end residential or office buildings in the area.
The surrounding area would have needed thousands more hotel rooms to support the expansion that Baker put on hold, Gibbons said.
The authority’s board, which is controlled by the Baker administration, will likely use the resulting report to decide on an expansion by spring 2018. The MCCA would likely need to go back to the Legislature for permission to borrow for construction, Gibbons said.
The director also hopes the consultant can suggest ways to better connect the 2.1 million-square-foot facility to the booming neighborhood that surrounds it.
“Whatever we do, we need to work with the neighborhood and the city so the future of South Boston wraps around us as opposed to us being a fortress that’s walled off,” Gibbons said.