Tag Archives: Boston Common

Where things stand: Winthrop Square

The proposed 775-foot tower to be built on the site of a grungy city garage started out nicely when plans were unveiled last summer. The developer, Millennium Partners, was largely responsible for revitalization of Washington Street with the Ritz complex, Millennium Place and the Millennium Tower that filled in Vornado’s Filene’s hole. They would pay the city $153 million for affordable housing and park maintenance in the Boston Common and Franklin Park. So far, so good.

Then came a pesky problem.

The tower broke the law. It threw shadows on the Common that were not allowed under the early 1990s state legislation limiting shadows on the Boston Common, the Public Garden and the common in Lynn. (It’s a long story.)

The Friends of the Public Garden, who look after the Common, said no way would they allow illegal shadows. Legislators spoke up. City councilors weighed in. Meetings were held. Letters were written. The Boston Planning and Development Agency offered a compromise—let Winthrop Square, which is not in the Midtown Cultural District, use the shadows left in the “shadow bank,” available only to properties in the Midtown Cultural District, which extends from the Common through Downtown Crossing.

Meanwhile, Logan Airport said the tower might be too high. Rep. Aaron Michlowitz of the North End said nothing would happen unless the city ponies up dollars to support the Greenway. No one has yet offered any compromise.

Complicated stories like this get more complicated, and it’s easy to lose track of what’s happening.

So where do things stand?

I asked four people who are involved with the matter. (Two other people I never reached.) This is apparently where things stand.

The Friends of the Public Garden still oppose the shadow the project casts, said Liz Vizza, the organization’s executive director. Since the city has not filed a home rule petition, Vizza does not know what the city is planning, so she waits.

Her group isn’t passive, however. It mounts letter-writing campaigns, meets with city officials, and has hired a State House lobbyist to help manage whatever legislation is filed.

Potential for compromise on the part of the Friends? Maybe a little gesture. Vizza characterized the shadow trade as “an incremental step toward balancing additional shadow and protecting the park.” She also said she would like to see the city consider how to balance new development and green spaces all over Boston. In Dorchester, South Boston and JP, where many buildings are rising, green spaces have no protection at all.

The rumor mill has it that some think Copley Square needs a shadow law. Would such restrictions sweeten the pot for park advocates? Hard to tell.

Vizza, as well as some legislators I spoke to, want the city to drill down in zoning so everyone knows what’s allowed. But city officials say good luck unless they’ve got a much bigger budget and more staff. Meanwhile everyone wants to take advantage of the best economy in recent memory for development.

Vizza’s big worry is precedent. No comparable city-owned parcels are left in the downtown. But, she wonders, if city officials are blinded by the big bucks this development throws off, what will they do if future developers offer way beyond what they need to in proposing their plan?

Josh Zakim, the city councilor for the neighborhoods around the Common, said it is hard to get a sense of whether the city council would support a home rule petition until the city files its proposal. Zakim would still like to see the developers explain what shadows would be like if the building were at 500 or 600 feet tall. For now, he’s waiting too.

Joe Larkin, Millennium’s point man for Winthrop Square, has been presenting the merits of the proposal to neighborhood groups all over the city, since, as he says, the payoff benefits many neighborhoods.

Larkin said his company will file Form 7460 with Massport within the next 30 days. That will start the process of determining whether 775 feet will fly (sorry) with the airport crowd. He supports the shadow bank trade. “Shadow for shadow is a good deal,” he said.

He has no plans for a design change. His company, like the Friends, has hired lobbyists. “We’re working in an environment we’re not familiar with,” he said, referring to the State House. “It’s the same with the Friends.”

Finally, a few answers came from the BPDA’s Jonathan Greeley. City officials are focused on the money for housing and park maintenance. He says the BPDA, as part of resolving this matter, will “lead a planning effort to better define the future of downtown.”

His spokesperson, Bonnie McGilpin, said the home rule petition will go to the city council in the next few weeks. “The exact substance is still being finalized,” she said in an email.

As to Rep. Michlowitz’s demand, the mayor and he have had a conversation, said McGilpin. So far, the mayor looks as if he’s sticking with his original plan for disbursing the money. Is it a moot point as officials work out with abutters how the Greenway’s maintenance will go forward?

So many moving parts. So many conflicts. So little time.

Shadows vs. money

Aren’t we Bostonians better than Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump?

Millennium Partners beat out several other developers in a plan to demolish the city’s decrepit parking garage at Winthrop Square and build a 700-feet-plus skyscraper, paying the city millions of dollars to be spread around for park improvements, affordable housing and the like, all of which Boston needs. It’s a good project with a good outcome for Bostonians.

There is one problem, however. The project’s shadow would at times fall on the Boston Common and Public Garden, even though they are several blocks away. This means the building would violate the 27-year-old state law protecting the parks from shadows that can reduce plant health and people’s enjoyment. This law, as its advocates point out, has helped the parks and has not deterred development in Boston’s downtown. It should not be tampered with lightly.

So when I attended a meeting about the project sponsored by the Boston Planning and Development Agency, I was eager to see if anything could be worked out that would be a win-win for both sides.

Except for a gorgeous translucent model of downtown Boston, however, the event, attended by a couple hundred people, was depressing. It was two sides lining up like McConnell did against Obama, swearing that not one thing Obama wanted would ever get passed. It was like Trump—demonizing opponents with insults.

It was embarrassing to listen to an older man viciously screaming at young BPDA staffers because the format was not like the December meeting with a presentation and a time for audience comments. Instead there were stations set up with posters, videos and architects’ models addressing different elements in the project.

Then there was the battle of the buttons. Several attendees wore “Keep Our Parks Sunny.” Others were milling around with buttons that said “Let Boston Rise.” I was told that some people wearing the latter were union members.

Several residents muttered to me and one another about how deceptive Millennium officials were, how awful they were, how it was all about greed, and that they should simply slice off the top half of the building, bring it down to 300 feet and try to make a living off that.

It was embarrassing to hear the public sniping about a developer who started the revival of the Combat Zone by building a hotel and condominiums.

It was embarrassing to realize that there appears to have been a lack of awareness early on, on the part of the mayor, the BPDA and Millennium, that this far-away building would cast an illegal shadow. After all, these people are professionals.

It was embarrassing that the BPDA had not figured out how to warn people that the format would be different, since the crowd obviously couldn’t handle that surprise.

It was embarrassing that downtown folks, who typically enjoy more financial resources than do “working” people, can’t properly acknowledge that they also care about jobs the property development brings.

It is embarrassing that “working” people don’t realize that many downtown people actually do care that the wealth is shared generously among all kinds of workers.

It was embarrassing that the public couldn’t appreciate the ironies. For example, if the project’s location were closer to the park—let’s say where Macy’s is—its shadows would pass muster, said BPDA Director of Development Review, Jonathan Greeley, since buildings in the Midtown Cultural District (and over South Station) have less restrictive shadow limits. One reason some locations were restricted less was that the city was trying to foster development in those areas.

How did we get to this level of rancor and lack of humanity? How did we get to the place of no compromise, no ability to stand in another’s shoes?

I have been to many meetings about contentious matters. Often members of the public bond over their mission, pumping it up into a fight between good and evil, even if the morality of the matter is vague.

This is a good example. Both sides have good points to make. But the demonization must stop. The players should maintain respect for the other side’s position, even if they don’t agree with it. They should advocate without trying to destroy reputations or mocking the other side.

This can be worked out. My hope is always that Millennium narrows the top of their building into a point, like the Empire State Building, reducing the shadow and also improving Boston’s skyline. Ameliorating shadows was the reason the Empire State was designed like that. (It was also designed with a tie-up for a blimp, but that’s another story.) But that is just my hope, because we all have our quirks.

There is a process to go through, and I have no answers to these serious problems. But compromises can be made. Everyone may lose something but I hope both sides win a lot.

Christmas thanks

A tree is being cut down today in Nova Scotia with great fanfare. Soon it will travel by flat-bed truck to the Boston Common, where it will be erected, decorated and loved. Similar trees have occupied the Common or the Pru yearly since 1971.

A tribute to Americans’ Christian holiday, the tree’s journey is mostly because of a Jewish man, Abraham Ratshesky. This blending of countries and cultures is fitting at a time of year in which we should all be celebrating everyone’s way of marking the winter solstice.

Abraham Ratshesky was a co-founder of Boston’s U.S. Trust Company, a founder of Beth Israel Hospital and a Back Bay resident. He was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to serve as minister to what was then called Czecho-Slovakia. He still has family in the area. His great-nephew Alan Morse lives in Brookline.

In 1917 America and Canada were at war with Germany. Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the closest North American port to Europe, so it was busy.

Early in the morning of December 6, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel McCall received a short telegram. Something terrible had happened in Halifax, though it was unclear what that thing was, according to the Nova Scotian author Blair Beed. A Halifax survivor had run three miles to the only operating telegraph station to send the cryptic message.

Bostonians later pieced together the story. A few days earlier the French ship, the SS Mont Blanc, had been loaded with war munitions in New York. It stopped in Halifax in open ocean on December 5 because the port’s submarine nets had been lowered for the night, blocking the harbor. Early the next morning the ship proceeded through a narrow strait to the inner harbor while the Norwegian steamer, the SS Imo, loaded with relief supplies destined for Belgium, was leaving.

A tugboat impeded the Imo’s path, and in trying to get back on course, the steamer rammed the Mont Blanc. A small fire erupted on the Mont Blanc, and the crew abandoned ship.

As the Mont Blanc sloshed toward a pier, the fire grew, and the munitions exploded with such force that the ship’s anchor shaft was found three miles away.

It wasn’t just fire that destroyed the town. A blast wave tore down houses and tore up people, and a tidal wave drowned them.

Throughout that first day Gov. McCall tried through downed lines to reach Halifax by phone or telegram. When he couldn’t, he acted anyway. He commissioned Abraham Ratshesky to leave by train to do whatever needed to be done. Through a blizzard Ratshesky led a group of rescuers—doctors, nurses, Red Cross officials, railroad officials and journalists—without knowing what they would face. That train arrived on December 8 at 7 a.m. It was the first major help Halifax got.

When Ratshesky arrived, he found a city with neighborhoods completely destroyed. His entourage was met by Mr. C. A. Hayes, the general manager of the Canadian Government Railways, whose trains couldn’t get through from the west. When Mr. Hayes saw the Americans, he burst into tears. It was later estimated that more than 2,000 people died.

Ratshesky set up hospitals, organized a food supply, arranged for housing, and generally got things going. The people of Boston came through too. On the first day they learned what happened, Bostonians raised $100,000 for Halifax’s relief. That was at a time when $12 a week was the prevailing wage.

Massachusetts automobile dealers sent $25,000 worth of trucks, ten chauffeurs and gasoline. The state sent horses and carts, four ambulances and x-ray machines. Soon other American cities were sending help, but Boston, with a quick-thinking governor, an able organizer and the closest proximity, got there first. The help lasted for several years.

Ratshesky was able to leave by December 13 but the Red Cross stayed until January 5, 1918. When Gov. McCall finally paid a visit, he was honored with a degree from Dalhousie University, and a temporary housing block was named after him.

At Christmas in 1918, Halifax sent Boston a tree in gratitude for the city’s help. In 1971, the county’s Christmas tree producers revived the gift, and now Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources annually selects a spruce or fir from someone’s yard or field for shipment. The owner is asked to donate the tree, and the answer is usually a resounding “yes.”

The Boston Parks Department is responsible for the tree on this end. Ryan Woods, that department’s director of external affairs, said he spends most of the fall dealing with logistics around the event.

The tree arrives the Friday before Thanksgiving and is illuminated with celebration on December 3.

Nova Scotian poet Clark Hall long ago penned this acknowledgement of the help Bostonians gave to Haligonians:


When good old Boston heard the news,

She answered like a flash,

And sent us food and clothing

Likewise men and cash.


As soon as they received the news,

Without the least delay,

They got their cars in readiness

And started on their way.


God Bless our neighbours to the South,

God Bless them one and all

Who responded so magnificently

To humanity’s urgent call.


Where’er that spangled banner floats,

On water or on land,

You’ll always find them ready

To reach out a helping hand.


They sent us their trained nurses

With a brotherly, Christian will,

And in the medical line, the best

Of Massachusetts’ skill.


They attended to our cuts and torn

In an earnest, faithful manner,

Those ministering angels in our midst,

From beneath that starry banner.


We never shall forget them

Till we go to our grave.

And may the flag of freedom

Forever o’er them wave.

Rattus norvegicus and us



Consider the rat—specifically the Norway rat, which doesn’t come from Norway. It is brownish gray and as long as 16 inches. During its year-long lifespan a female can produce up to five litters of seven babies, although litters can be as large as 14. It has excellent sight and hearing and an acute sense of smell. It can swim across the Charles River.

It thrives in cities all over the world. Here it lives in burrows in the Boston Common or wherever it can find suitable soil near people. Some of Boston’s best addresses are the most infested. Rats carry salmonella and rabies. About 50,000 Americans are bitten yearly by rats.

Rats can live in your house, as several did recently on Hancock and Myrtle streets on Beacon Hill. Andrew Christoffels, who works at Charles St. Supply, heard from the residents that the rats were in the toilet.

I’m betting you don’t want them in your house. The city helped the Beacon Hill residents with their problems, said John Meaney,  director of the city’s Environmental Services.

Many Boston residents, however, are at risk from rats moving in. We live in old buildings with holes in the foundations and improperly sealed pipes. Continue reading