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Boston’s Towering Presence: Developer Don Chiofaro

Don Chiofaro

Don Chiofaro

“But what if you could?”

Sitting in their Belmont home, Don Chiofaro and his wife, Diane, considered her question as they contemplated his notes for a 1.8 million square foot development project that would one day become International Place. It was 1981, and the challenge was bigger and more audacious than anything Chiofaro had undertaken so far in his life: transforming a waterfront lot with 10 different properties and a garage into one of the most elegant and stunning buildings in Boston. “I thought of it as a movie,” he says. “And I wanted it to win the Academy Award.”

Chiofaro was up to the challenge, and with good reason. It was what he was destined to do. “I had a lot of job offers after receiving my degree from Harvard Business School,” he says. “I ended up on Wall Street. One week later, I left the job and was back in Boston.” For Chiofaro, a job had to meet two fundamental requirements: it had to be tangible and it had to be based in Boston. “I went to work for a real estate developer, Cabot, Cabot and Forbes,” he recalls. “They wanted to send me to California. So I went, checked out the big cities, and then I told them I wanted to be in Boston. Then they asked me to go work in Phoenix. I went there and came back again. In the end, they made up a job for me here, where I shadowed the company’s only national salesman that was based in our area. I took in as much as I could and tried to learn everything.”

For Chiofaro, it made little sense to leave the area his family had moved to in the early 1900s. Both his grandparents, Domenico Chiofaro and Concetta (Anza) hailed from Ucria, a little town in northeastern Sicily. After passing through Ellis Island, the couple settled in Waltham, where they had three children: Sabatino, Teresa and Vera. “My grandfather Domenico died when my father was only 7,” recounts Chiofaro. “Grandmother Concetta had to take in boarders and do all sorts of odd jobs to raise her three little children. Then she got remarried to Dominic Santucci, and that’s the grandfather I remember growing up with.”

Don Chiofaro during his college years.

Don Chiofaro during his college years.

Things weren’t easy for Chiofaro’s family back then. His father, Sabatino, was a young man when the Depression hit, forcing him to leave school and go to work to support the family. “He sold shoes, then also worked at the Watertown arsenal for a time,” says Chiofaro. Things turned around after the end of World War II, as Chiofaro’s father got a position as a police officer in Belmont, where Chiofaro grew up and eventually went on to become the first member of his family to go to college, thanks to a football scholarship. During his years at Harvard University, Chiofaro became captain of the football team and was well known in the college sports’ circle as a very promising linebacker. Already showing a propensity for leadership, he was described by his coach at the time, John Yovicsin, as “a take charge type. The team responds to him.”

And that’s exactly what Chiofaro did in 1980, when, after years of developing properties across the country for Cabot, Cabot and Forbes, he started his own company along with Ted Oatis, a business school classmate and colleague at CC&F. “The very first thing I did when I started the company was to sit down and write on a piece of paper my goals,” remembers Chiofaro. First on the list was a piece of property in Westborough that he had eyed, which would become the Westborough Technology Park just over a decade after its purchase in 1983.

But the big prize, ultimately, was to develop a one-of-a-kind building in the heart of Boston. “I knew enough to be dangerous at the time, but there were still a lot of things I didn’t know,” says Chiofaro, thinking back to the days he set his eyes on the downtown parcel that would one day become International Place. “There were 10 different properties, all of which had to be bought. It was a challenge.” He knew it was possible, but at what cost? He was 35 and already had three children. “I was at home one night, and I drew a line down the back of a big envelope – it was a big deal! On the left I wrote all I knew about the project, while on the right were the things I didn’t know.” When complete, his list contained dozens of reasons not to pursue the deal – and all the reasons why he shouldn’t even try. At that point, there was only one person in the world who could honestly tell him if the project was feasible. Chiofaro walked up to his wife — to whom he has now been married 45 years — and presented the manila envelope with his notes. He was asking for her opinion, but also for her approval. “I don’t know if I can do it,” he told her. She looked at the two columns of scribbled notes and then looked up. “But what if you could?”

Today, the site is one of the most valuable pieces of property in all of Boston, thanks to the development of the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the rest of the waterfront. But back in the early 1980s, the area was far from desirable. As E. J. Kahn III wrote in a Boston Magazine article, the Fort Hill garage that had been purchased by The Chiofaro Company was an “ugly, squat box in the lee of a sharp curve of the Central Artery that looked out on the rotting Rowe’s Wharf and decrepit Fort Point Channel Bridge.” Chiofaro looked beyond the area’s state of decrepitude and pushed forward with his vision of a better Boston. On Oct. 20, 1983, the Boston Redevelopment Authority authorized what the Boston Herald described as a “$326 million facelift,” although construction wouldn’t begin until early 1985.

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The rest, as they say, is history. Through the years, The Chiofaro Company has gone on to develop and manage the Nashoba Corporate Center in Westford, tackled the adaptive re-use of an Ipswich estate for New England Biolabs, and produced build-to-suit solutions for a number of global corporations. What Chiofaro has been working on for the past several years is another ambitious project that would cement his legacy on Boston’s waterfront. In 2007, Chiofaro and financial backer Prudential Real Estate Investors bought the Harbor Garage (right next to the Aquarium) for $153 million. From Day 1, Chiofaro’s idea was to raze the garage and replace it with a stunning work of architecture designed by the internationally-renowned architects at Kohn Pederson Fox Associates. For years, though, the plan was stuck, as Chiofaro and the late Mayor Tom Menino disagreed on what was best for the harborside site. In June, however, Chiofaro received a preliminary green light for a 600-foot tower from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, although its approval significantly limits Chiofaro’s original 1.3 million-square-foot plan to 900,000 square feet.

Despite becoming one of the biggest names in Boston’s real estate development, Chiofaro still encounters road bumps on the way to achieving his grand plans. He’s not the type to worry, though. His motto could very well be “if there is a will, there is a way.” In the end, Chiofaro always manages to find a way.

About Nicola Orichuia

Nicola is an Italian journalist and media enthusiast living in the United States. He keeps an eye on the Italian-American communities across the country and is always looking for positive stories to highlight.