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Quincy, Mass., Rebuilds from Scratch

The city is clearing land to rebuild its downtown using a unique business model that some say could be a game changer.

CorpsNewEngland/Flickr CC
Rebuilding a city’s downtown is not unheard of. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city rebuilt itself, as did San Francisco after the famous earthquake of 1906. But no natural or man-made calamity is behind the downtown makeover in Quincy, Mass. Instead, decades of deteriorating infrastructure, inconsistent commercial growth and traffic problems have left an unappealing downtown district that has all the trappings of failure for the city of 91,000.

Rather than try to revitalize piece by piece, Mayor Thomas P. Koch is starting from scratch. Plans, which have been on the drawing board for years, began to solidify earlier this year. They call for clearing 50 acres in the city’s center, constructing nearly $300 million in new infrastructure and building $1.3 billion in private retail shops, entertainment venues, offices, hotels, parking and housing. To do the heavy lifting, the city has struck a deal with a private developer to pay up front for the public improvements, which include utilities, roadways, parking and landscaping.

The plan is an entirely new business model for city development, according to experts. What’s unusual about the project is that the developer will assume almost all of the financial risk. Only when the infrastructure is finished will Quincy step in and assume responsibility for the debt by issuing general obligation bonds. With those bonds as a guarantee, the developer, Street-Works Development, expects to tap private equity and debt markets to build the offices, shops, apartments and parking garages.

“If Quincy succeeds, it’s a game changer,” Thomas Murphy, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute, told The New York Times.

The developer, who has had success doing large-scale urban development in West Hartford, Conn., believes Quincy has a number of major assets, including close proximity to Boston, mass transit in the form of both a commuter rail and subway stop, good connections to highways, and a growing economy in the region. But there are risks too. Large-scale urban projects, with many moving parts, are difficult to pull off. While the project is moving forward quickly, it will take at least 10 years to complete. Another economic slowdown in that time could impact the timetable and the project’s success.

The Quincy project is certainly not for the faint of heart. Rebuilding an entire downtown is a complex and challenging endeavor that calls for a certain amount of trust between public and private partners, as well as some tough negotiation skills. “You can be taken to the cleaners if you don’t write these things correctly,” West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle told The Boston Globe, describing his town’s experience with mixed-used development. “You have to be as smart as the developers.”

Correction appended Oct. 7, 2011: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the mayor of Quincy, Mass. The mayor is Thomas P. Koch. Thanks to reader Kathleen O'Donnell; Governing regrets the error.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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