^ towering into the sun’s shadow path : Millenium’s Winthrop Square garage site proposal

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An article by Shirley Leung in Thursday’s Boston Globe put the spot on a public-comment, Boston planning and Development Agency meeting that might otherwise not have drawn many people. Instead, at least 250 came to hear what Millenium Partners has to say now that attention was called by Leung to their project’s violation of our state’s “shadow law.”

What is the “shadow law” ? As is my usual practice when facing laws and public statements, I refer you to the law itself, whose text can be read here : (NOTE : when I clicked on this link, an error message popped up; still  this is the official text online; hopefully the link will work soon)

The intention of the “shadow law” was, by limiting the height of proposed towers in the downtown Boston district, to preserve the entire sunlight afforded naturally to Boston Common and Public Gardens, for the sake of their horticulture and general attractiveness as places of greenery and relaxation. Few would deny the value thereof to the City’s major downtown open space, since early Boston days an icon of public assembly and countryside peace. The current building boom would put an end to that sunlight were it not for the law adopted in 1990. Millenium Partners already has a tower, well over 725 high, that impacts sunlight in its wake, but in that case, not across the Common or Gardens. Many other recent projects loom well higher than the height limits recited in the law.

Building upward is the only option in the downtown area scarce on horizontal space. Besides, upper floors are the more desirable. The view is worth every penny, I guess.

The City also values as much building height a sit can permit. Take a 6000 square foot parcel — or less — put an 850 foot high, 600 unit tower thereon, and you’re talking many millions of dollars in tax revenue for a city whose line budgets fall well short of desired funds. The difference between said millions and what the City treasury could expect from a mere 425 foot high edifice might easily be worth an entire City department.

All this is by way of background to why the City so badly wants — and asked for — a tower 725 feet high that will pay many millions of dollars into the Treasury to fund a tight budget. It also matters, to the Walsh administration, that major project gives plenty of well paying work to Boston’s Building Trades and thus fuels the consumer spending boom that benefits almost the entire city.

It’s also an election year for Mayor Walsh. In this context, he is willing to gamble an act of the legislature carving a height of tower exception for the Winthrop Square Garage project. Downtown residents and business people know all this very well, which is why at least 250 people attended the “public comment”: meeting held on the 29th Floo0r of 101 Federal Street. There, genteel conversation was the tenor of things. Unlike the usual BPDA “public comment” hearing, the format wasn’t question and answer with the entire attendance listening but instead small groups of Millenium staff conversing quietly with small numbers of the “public.” It was a clever arrangement. Coffee and cookies sere served as well; the setting felt more like a realtor’s polite open house than a contentious BPDA “community process” hearing.

Lack of contention, however, left all the basic questions unresolved : ( 1 ) why did the City request a tower height violative of the “shadow law” ? It didn’t have to do that. ( 2 ) will the legislature grant an exception to Millenium, and if so (and it seems that it will), at what cost to future development by way of amendments to the “shadow law” ? ( 3 ) will any such amendment to the law assure that no competitor to Millenium will be able to build a competing project ?

Competing developers understand the intentions of City hall. They have hired, or surely will be hiring, consultants well regarded by Mayor Walsh. Mayor Menino had his favor9ite developers and construct9ion firms — John Fish’s Suffolk first among them. It seems that Mayor Walsh now has his favorite developer as well, even if rivals aren’t ready, or able, to concede the entire field. Boston development has offered enormous returns to real estate investors these past twenty years; who of them is ready to back off, from a City in which residential  construcft8ion remains a top prior9ty, even if supply is beginning to come into line with demand (as recent weakness in rent rates indicate) ?

Millenium seems to have all the upper hands powering the Winthrop square Garage project. It has won this round and seems set to put a major tire spike on the highways of its rivals. How those rivals respond, and what Millenium proposes next — and where : Widett Circle beckons big time — will likely be the most significant consequence of Millenium’s relationship with Mayor Walsh and the law governing Massachusetts development.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




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