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Paradoxes regained in Boston

Boston, as we've noted before, makes great sport for paradox-hunters. Side by side sit superb universities and dismal city schools. Public housing stands idle while the homeless sleep in cars. A $1 billion annual building boom rises around an impoverished city hall.

Recently, three other paradoxes have swum into public focus: a top-flight basketball team (the Celtics) playing in a bottom-rung stadium (the 53-year-old Boston Garden), a popular convention city offering nothing but thte cramped and aging Hynes Auditorium, and a hotel business (that runs at half capacity each winter) expanding its room count by 60 percent. Oddly enough, these three are all related -- and, if the work of the so-called Arena Committee bears fruit, they might all be on the way toward a great resolution.

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First, sports. Boston lends its name to three famous (and occasionally infamous) teams: baseball's Red Sox, basketball's Celtics, and hockey's Bruins. The latter two play inside the Boston Garden, a tired and malodorous structure full of pillars, obstructed views, and (some say) rats. Outside, the decaying North Station neighborhood offers poor parking and difficult access. The situation pleases no one -- including the Bruins, who last winter shopped for a better location in Salem, N.H.

That deal caved in.But not before a squad of sports-lovers and city promoters had coalesced around Sen. Paul Tsongas. So strong was the desire to keep the Bruins, in fact, that it sliced through strong rivalries, drawing together Mayor Kevin H. White, Gov. Edward J. King, Congressman Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the leaders of both houses on Beacon Hill, and 24 other movers and shakers.

They have issued their report. What Boston needs, they said, is a 16,000 -seat, $56.8 million sports arena at the old Boston Garden site. In an age of financial cutbacks, that is easier said than done.But the well-planned proposal has at least three things going for it:

* It tackles financial questions head-on. Under the shepherding of Thomas Hynes Jr., a senior vice-president of the real estate firm of Meredith & Grew, the committee has chosen to build the arena essentially without city or state funds. The money would come from the sale of bonds, backed by an increase in the state hotel-room tax.

* It meets obvious needs. Not only does professional sports need to be lifted from an environment which brings out the ugliness in its fan. The North Station area needs an uplift, too.The arena, with its 1,500-car parking facilities, would also complement the new $75 million federal building already planned for the area.

* It satisfies various constituencies. The state will benefit, both from the new building to be built on the old Garden site. The MBTA gets a new subway station without the monumental expense of tunneling. The politicians get the credit for making things happen. Sports-lovers get the arena. It has something for nearly everyone.

It's the word "nearly" that causes concern. Some knowledgeable observers feel that relations between the mayor and the legislature, and between Boston and the west, are so rancorous that the plan will never win state approval.

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Losing this plan to political rivalries would be bad enough, even if the arena were the only thing at stake. But tucked into the proposal is another plum: funds for Boston's tourist trade. Tourism, hiring 150,000 people, contributes $2 billion annually to the state's economy. Some of that comes from convention traffic, Conventioneers, it seems, spend an average of $432 each. Annual value to Boston of its convention business: $50 million to $60 million.

But it's a tough business. For although the city's director of convention marketing, Dan Mitchell, says that Boston is "a very easy sell" -- rich in history, full of life, and surrounded by universities and progressive businesses -- the competition is severe. Consider that:

* Thirty-one American cities are renovating or expanding convention facilities. The 19-year-old Hynes Auditorium, with only 150,000 square feet, is far behind New York (750,000) square feet), Atlanta (300,000 square feet now, 200,000 more coming), and Philadelphia (300,000 square feet).

* Half the organizations that came here in the last five years have said they won't return because the Hynes is inadequate. Size is not the only issue: the building, compared with the softly lit, carpeted interiors of its competitors, is drab.

All of which makes another provision in the arena proposal crucial: to dedicate part of the expanded hotel tax revenues to convention and tourism offices around the state. Another part would go to a long-studied $25 million project to double the size of the Hynes. According to Boston Redevelopment Authority spokesman Ralph Memolo, the Hynes plan "remains the city's policy." The problem: The City will have to come up with some $8 million, not easy to do now that all its capital projects have been put on hold.

Will the arena and the Hynes projects be completed? That now depends on the inscrutable workings of the legislature. On the lawmakers, too, depends the immediate future of yet another business: the hotel trade, which many fear may be galloping toward oversupply.

On line right now are eight new hotels. The Ritz addition is open. The Meridien opens this month. The steel is rising on Dalton Street for the Back Bay Hilton. Two hotels will grace the massive Copley Place project. The Bostonian will come to Dock Square, the Four Seasons to Park Plaza, the Intercontinental to Lafayette Place. Total new first-class rooms: 4,000 in city that now has 7,300.

Even these developments will not bring Boston quite back to the 12,000 rooms it had in 1950. But those who have tried unsuccessfully, as I have, to book a room in Boston in the summer will be thrilled. Problems, however, arise in:

* Occupancy rates. The break-even point, say hoteliers, is 70 percent. Last October Boston posted 92.8 percent occupancy. But look at the January 1981, figure: 52.8 percent, according to Jerome Solomon, who oversees Boston hotel trends for Pannell Kerr Forster. Boston's summers are grand. But winter takes its toll.

* Size of the increase. Alan Tremain, managing director of the Copley Plaza and president of the Massachusetts Hotel and Motor Inn Association, notes that New York just added 5,000 rooms to its 195,000 -- an increase of less than 3 percent -- and is encountering serious occupancy problems. Experts remind you that Boston's 60 percent increase brings another 4,000 rooms to fill every night.m But business is off: nationally, occupancy was down 4.7 percent last year.

* Timing. Although the Boston hotel boom arises after years of complaint by convention-planners, they always assumed that the Hynes would grow, too. That should have happened after the commonwealth in 1980 allocated $30 million to expand convention facilities statewide.

These three threads, coming together, might knit a strong rope. But the ultimate paradox remains that, in a city filled with thoughtful planners, no one has asked the deepest ques tion: Should convention business be encouraged?

One needn't look far to find meeting-goers who feel they rarely attend really worthwhile conventions, justifying all the time they soak up. To be sure, people meet one another, talk, and plan -- just as they do elsewhere. Whether they need to pay the Boston average of $53.52 a night for a room with color TV they haven't time to watch and for a swimming pool they might not use is less sure.

To say all this, of course, is to risk being called crabby and mean-spirited. Surely hard-working business people deserve the amenities. Agreed. But there are more than a few people in Boston who worry that in fact the convention business has become, essentially, a luxury. They foresee that hardpressed businesses will have to chop into convention expenses. They note that if high interest rates and inflation continue, the one thing likely to suffer will be the business of the first-class hotels.

For this is an age in which America is readjusting its standard of living -- and its sense of luxury.Is it paradoxical that as the nation's habits grow more modest its convention trade grows more luxurious? Is there a need for simpler accommodations at lower prices -- for a rethinking of the center-city hotel business.

Unless we're sure that the energy punch and the economic pinch of the last decade are mere blips in an ever-rising curve of material prosperity, these are questions we'll all want to consider -- no matter what becomes of the arena.

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