State transportation building may be the right structure in wrong place

If Boston's Park Plaza Urban Renewal Project is not a success, don't blame the state government, especially Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. During the past decade, the commonwealth has gone out of its way to help Mayor Kevin H. White turn a potential white-elephant venture into an impressive accomplishment.

No greater or possibly more lasting monument to the state government's commitment to the capital city could be erected than the red-brick state transportation building, now nearing completion in Park Square.

The eight-story, block-long structure was not a part of the original renewal project, but the state agreed to build it after the project's future became jeopardized by lack of private investor interest and the withdrawal of the developer favored by the White administration.

Still remaining is the question: Is the $91 million transportation building the best use for this valuable tract planted in the heart of the city's entertainment district and less than a block from Boston Common?

Without this visible vote of confidence by the commonwealth in the area's future, it is uncertain how soon the renewal project would have moved toward even modest fruition.

Yet, from the state's standpoint, the building's site in the theater district on the southwest fringes of the downtown section is far from ideal - unless moving pictures can be considered a form of transportation, and Massachusetts is considering expanding in that revenue-producing direction.

A site closer to the State House (possibly in the Government Center), would have been preferable. It might be noted the original blueprint for Government Center included a high-rise structure near Haymarket Square to house the state departments of health, education, and welfare.

For reasons known best to the officials who make such decisions, that state office building was never built, and funds authorized for it were diverted to other public-construction ventures. And since the early 1970s, the governor's office has tried to bring all state transportation agencies under the same roof - an effort coming to fruition at Park Square.

Besides bailing out the Park Plaza renewal project, the new transportation structure introduces the concept of mixed use - commercial and government enterprises in the same building. The ground floor and a portion of the second floor are being leased to a real-estate developer for retail shops and restaurants. This, along with revenue from the 450-car underground garage, will help pay for the structure.

The developer of the 43,000-square-foot retail portion of the building is to pay taxes to the city on the basis of his rental income. Although exempt by law from real-estate taxes, the commonwealth will give Boston an annual payment in lieu of taxes for its 350,000-square-foot portion of the building. The amount has not been agreed upon yet.

The arrangement almost certainly will yield considerably less than what the city might have received from an all-commercial development on the site, but probably comparable to the tax yield from the structures replaced.

It is far too early to assess the impact of the building on its surroundings, including both land values and future fully tax-producing developments such as hotels, shops, and office buildings. But in the long run there seems little doubt both Boston, or at least the Park Square section, will be better off with the new state building there.

Much less certain is how quickly the commercial real-estate market within Boston can absorb the fairly substantial vacancies caused by the departure of various state agencies soon to be housed in the new structure.

The Massachusetts Port Authority, for example, now occupies a floor and a half in the Keystone Building in the financial district. Even larger quarters nearby house the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority occupies one floor of the Prudential Tower in the Back Bay.

All three of these agencies, along with the state's Executive Office of Transportation, the State Convention Center Commission, Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, and the State Department of Public Works (DPW) will be moving into the new structure within the next several months.

Unlike most of the others, the DPW has for some years had its own building at 100 Nashua Street, near the North Station. That department's move leaves uncertain the future of that state-owned property with the Registry of Motor Vehicles the only remaining major occupant.

The powers that be at the State House should have little difficulty finding an occupant for the DPW building. In the process, however, this could involve substantial money the state does not have to fix up or convert the space for its new occupants.

Few of the agencies heading for the transportation building will be closer to the State House, and some will be farther from this seat of government - a move that could be viewed as beneficial only by those bureaucrats who prefer to be left pretty much on their own.

Particularly helped by the move will be Frederick Salvucci, the state's secretary for transportation and construction, who will be within a couple minutes - in some instances only a matter of seconds - from the various agencies within his domain.

Ideally the grouping of the several transportation-related departments, authorities, and commissions in a single building should lead to more efficient operations, if not better coordination of their activities.

A logical next step might be to merge at least some of them into a new operation with greater emphasis on professionalism.

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