Boxlike and pseudo-modern, the Prudential Tower -- Boston's first real skyscraper -- has been upstaged in recent years by its Back Bay neighbor, the mirror-surfaced John Hancock rhomboid that overpowers the once-genteel Copley Square area.

But despite loss of its "tallest building" title to the Hancock (52 stories vs. 60 stories), the Prudential remains the prime symbol of Boston's resurgence, which began 20 years ago when the city was rotting from within, starved for new dollars and new life.

Besides symbolizing an urban-renewal effort unmatched in the United States, however, the "Pru" is also a reminder of some mistakes that city planners and preservationists here hope will never happen again.

Twenty years ago it took a state law authorizing a special tax break to lure the Prudential into the development-desperate city. Now officials in "the Hub of the Universe" have the luxury of picking and choosing among big-name developers hankering to be a part of the city's growth.

After long decades of "white flight" and urban decay sapping the city's strength, Boston is in vogue.

Men like John Portman, the architect responsible for Atlanta's Peachtree Center Plaza and Detroit's Renaissance Center, and Moshe Safdie, the Israeli architect who created the Expo '67 Habitat in Montreal, are drawing up big plans for Boston.

International firms like Italian-based Immobiliare, developers of the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., and Canadian-based Olympia York, North America's largest office space developer, have invested in major projects here.

Development in Boston is expected to continue at the rate of $1 billion a year for the next four years. These dollars will translate into 6 million square feet of office space in 14 new buildings, 3,700 hotel rooms in 10 new hotels, more than 5,000 new housing units, and nearly 1 million square feet of new retail space.

The most recently approved project is a massive, $350 million complex on land and "air rights" over the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike at Copley Square -- between the John Hancock Tower and the Prudential Center. It is called, quite naturally, Copley Place.

"Boston's got glamour," says Richard Bonz, Immobiliare's New England representative, explaining the city's appeal. "Nobody really gets excited about cities like Phoenix. They see it in terms of dollars and cents. Phoenix is just the bottom line on an accountant's sheet."

But glamour is not all the Hub has. There are more tangible benefits in Boston, developers say: a stable economy and population (which after dropping steadily from its peak of 801,000 in 1950, leveled off in the early 1970s at about 600,000, and took a slight upswing to its present 642,000).

Most important to developers, there is money to be made here. Millions of city dollars poured into capital improvements in the past decade, and years of arduous planning have readied Boston for its new wave of development.

Today the city needs almost anything a developer can build. Vacancy rates for Class A office space (offices built since 1960) and for housing hover close to zero. Businessmen are pushing for doubling the size of the city's only convention auditorium. A new generation of young, affluent adults is attracted to the city, causing increased demand for entertainment, shopping, and restaurants.

But there is more, the developers say: Boston's reputation as a "livable" city, European in its ambiance. The downtown is small and walkable, only two square miles. Sparkling new government and commercial buildings -- from the ivory-colored Federal Reserve Building, near the harbor, and Government Center, with its brick plaza and monolithic City Hall, to the Hancock and the Pru anchoring the skyline on the west -- loom over centuries-old historic sites: Faneuil Hall, Old North Church, the Old State House, Paul Revere's House. The central "green space" of the Boston Common and Public Garden, as well as the banks of the Charles River, provides breathing space.

Developers say, too, that the city has that indefinable something lamentably lacking in much of the booming Sunbelt: culture.

"Mushroom towns scare us. They're very trendy," says Marco Ottieri, a principal in the Canadian-based Mondev Company, co-developer of one of Boston's major retail and hotel projects now being planned.

"One of the most attractive things to us is that, contrary to those other boomtowns, Boston has a cultural nucleus, which is the most difficult thing to create," he says. "You can create all the buildings you want -- that's just boxes, right? But culture -- either you have it or you don't."

But Boston's strong sense of identity means there is a price to pay. Sophisticated and vocal community groups with definite opinions about what the city does and doesn't need must be bargained with.

And Mayor Kevin H. White, now in his fourth four-year term, wields a final, czarlike power over who is selected to develop particular parcels and the shape of that development.

But developers apparently feel Boston is worth the hazards. Even those who get snarled in drawn-out negotiations are likely to credit community input with improving a plan. The reaction of James Rouse, whose company developed Boston's Quincy Marketplace, is not unusual: "We haven't been able to get everything we wanted, but who's to say we should have?"

Still, there have been enough delays on major projects here to give Boston a reputation for being one of the most difficult cities in the country for developers.

"It's known as a city in which developers are put through the ropes," sums up Glen Isaccson, director of development for John Portman, whose proposal for a major hotel has been turned down at least once by Mayor White.

"There are some projects that are still being worked on here that in another city probably would have been finished or abandoned by now," Mr. Isaccson says.

While planners and developers agree that other American cities -- most notably San Francisco -- have vocal community activists, "there's not even a candle that could be held to this community," says Ken Himmel, who is overseeing a $300 million Boston project that has already gone through 2 1/2 years of community review and 40 public hearings.

Among community concerns developers have had to meet here: guaranteeing investment in decaying neighborhoods; employing city residents in construction; preserving historic sites; and squelching high-rise plans that would threaten, as a local columnist said, to turn Boston into "a city of skyscrapers and canyons."

The groups have wielded their strength effectively. Take the Copley Place project, for example: Besides two major hotels, a major department store, a shopping mall, a large office building, a parking garage, and 100 units of housing, the project includes a new dimension -- guaranteed jobs for Boston residents, not only in construction, but with firms that lease space in the completed project.

The developer, Urban Investment & Development Inc. of Chicago, a subsidiary of the Aetna Insurance Company, is required to hire 50 percent Boston residents, 30 percent minorities, and 10 percent women on the construction phase of the project. After completion, the developer is to specify in its leases that it encourages tenants to hire 50 percent local residents, 50 percent women, and 30 percent minorities. An estimated 6,000 permanent jobs are involved.

Also recently, historic preservationists jumped to the firing line when Olympia York proposed tearing down Boston's 90-year-old financial exchange building to put up a 40- story office tower. When the smoke cleared, a compromise emerged: Save the facade of the original building while allowing Olympia York to construct the tower behind it. Both sides grumbled over the outcome, but each got at least part of what it wanted.

In another downtown project, developers neatly defused the preservationist battle by taking the initiative and actually proposing to build a luxury hotel withinm an existing historic landmark, rather than tear down the 50-year-old building.

"This is a city where everybody seems to know their rights," a developer says. "Which is good, but that means you've got to be ready for community opposition. Whether it's residents, historic preservationists, or businessmen, somebody will oppose it, no matter what it is."

On top of the rigors of negotiating with community groups are the uncertainties of dealing with the city and with Mayor White, who enjoys both the broad powers common to a "strong mayor" form of government and considerable political power of his own.

The mayor's keen interest in development is termed "meddling" by some irritated developers. "It depends on if he [Mayor White] likes what you're doing or he doesn't," says Ron Soskolne, project coordinator for Olympia York.

"He knows what he wants and he has the power to get what he wants," Mr. Soskolne continues. "If he likes you, he's helpful. If he doesn't, he's not."

Nonetheless, most developers point out that politics is a part of the process in any city -- that New York, for example, is at least as politicized as Boston.

And they often applaud Mr. White's interest and his vision for the city. "Of course he's got a subjective point of view," says one developer. "But he's got good taste."

For every developer who alleges that some form of political payoff is the norm, there is another who will testify that he has never had to play political games.

Still, there is an uncertainty -- a "Kevin White factor" -- in dealing with the city which few developers find palatable and which they say keeps a number of developers from approaching Boston. Even developers of projects already under way have few kind words for a process that a local consultant describes as "fragmented, incoherent, and nonlinear."

"Everyone is forced into playing the mayor's game," says a major national developer who requests anonymity. "No one likes it. He's got you the moment you walk into town. Sure it's degrading, it's stupid, it's everything else. But it's worth it, because Boston is such a good city."

Although virtually everyone bemoans the tight money market, many developers continue to draw up plans for projects here, biding their time until the lending dollars flow again and they can launch new projects.

They say there is an attraction that keeps them in the Hub -- a buoyant charm , a dignity that just can't be found in many American cities. In cities like Houston, they say, which is building at a breakneck pace, there is no aging grace. And in older cities that have that flair, such as Philadelphia, there is simply no market for investment, they say.

"For all our complaining and moaning, we still get satisfaction out of it," a major developer says. "And we make a buck. It may be a harder buck, but we make it."

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