Tag Archives: real estate development

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.

Shade or shadow?

Karen is taking a break. Here is a column from December, 2015 that attracted several comments.

 When I was 19 years old, I went to Wall Street. It was narrow, dark, secretive—worthy of the cash that I imagined rested behind those vault-like façades. It was my first encounter with shadows bestowing a sense of place, in this case a sense of importance.

Shadows affect people in other ways. They hint of secrets. They evoke menace, as in film noir or in “The Shadow.” Caravaggio used them to bring drama to his paintings.

In Boston, shadows are the bogeyman used to whip real estate developers into shape, causing them to lower the height of their buildings.

But shadows are complicated. If we like them, we call them shade.

The Friends of the Public Garden persuaded state legislators to pass a law in 1990 restricting new shadows on the Boston Common and Public Garden. This year New Yorkers urged their lawmakers to pass similar legislation protecting Central Park from such effects. Shadows on parkland can limit the kinds of vegetation that will survive, and they can also detract from users’ enjoyment of a park in which people seek sunlight as well as shade. That all seems reasonable.

But even the relationship between shadows and gardens is complex. Roses need only six hours of sun daily. Many other flowers and trees, not that much. Shade gardens are easier to maintain—less weeding needed. And consider my city garden. This 40-by-16-foot plot gets a one-hour sliver of sun that steals slowly around the garden walls, mostly in June. Yet everyone who visits it pronounces it beautiful. (I agree.) So much for the benefits of sunlight.

Another prime shadow location is on the southern side of Boston’s east-west sidewalks. The sidewalk across from my building has not seen sunlight since at least the 1890s. Five-story tenements cast it in total shadow. No one notices, and certainly no one has complained.

Massachusetts has passed other shadow legislation—Chapter 91, for example, addresses shadows. But Boston didn’t invent antipathy to shadows, and this city didn’t pass the first legislation about them. In 1901 New York City limited height in residential areas in the Tenement House Act, partly to reduce future shadows. In 1915, New York passed zoning that spelled out how commercial buildings would step back, narrowing as they rose higher, so they would cast less shadow. This zoning felicitously determined the graceful shapes of the Empire State and the Chrysler Building.

Later zoning was not so kind to the eye or the pedestrian. By 1961, architects were smitten with the International Style, and New York changed its zoning again. This time, instead of old-fashioned step-backs, the city used “floor-area ratios” to control height and shadows, but provided height bonuses to skyscrapers that gave the public “open space.” The plazas around such buildings did reduce some shadows, but they also increased wind, destroyed street life and presented a barrier to entering a building. Boston officials have been trying for years to eliminate such plazas and bring buildings back to the sidewalk.

Not all skyscrapers are known for shadows. My favorite is London’s “Walkie-Talkie,” a bulky, top-heavy, 525-foot leaning glass tower, the reflection of which was so strong that it melted a Jaguar on a nearby street. Some now call it the “Fryscraper.” Be careful what you wish for.

I have my own sunlight-creator. A large, newish, glass-clad building behind my house reflects sunlight every April and October for a few days, bringing sun into a couple of my north windows. It creeps me out.

Rather than tweaking design, New York style, Boston has typically, after contentious neighborhood processes, asked developers to take off several top floors. HYM Investments agreed to lower its 600-foot Government Center building by 75 feet. Did this benefit anyone?

Measuring shadows involves many subtleties, but reducing the height of a 600-foot building by 100 feet would typically mean its shadows would be reduced by one-sixth, according to Matt Littell, architect and principal with Utile Design and a consultant to the Public Realm and Watersheet Activation Plan and Municipal Harbor Plan for the Downtown Boston Waterfront.

One-sixth isn’t much in a city where most shadows land on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Moreover, this project will bring new sunlight to Congress Street, which we’ll probably complain about when we’re walking along on a hot summer day.

Other new projects are coming up, and they’ll all cast shadows, even if they are only three stories. The 600-foot TD Garden tower along Causeway Street will cast the most shadow over the TD Garden and North Station. Some will even increase sunlight in certain places. The Harbor Garage developers say their proposed buildings, one of which is 600 feet tall, would cast only fleeting shadows off-site and actually bring more sunlight on the ground at the site itself, compared to the current condition. Should more sunlight mean a developer can build higher?

It’s not that we shouldn’t consider shadows. But we should realize their presence is more nuanced than they have been made out to be. And if we insist that a building get shortened by 100 feet, or changed in some other way that affects shadows, it should actually matter.


Pots and kettles

Opposition to Don Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage Project has heated up. But some of it is the pot calling the kettle black. Or people in glass houses throwing stones.

Hypocrisy is addressed in the New Testament. “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Apparently humans have exhibited this behavior for a long time.

First it was Harbor Towers. Some residents of the tallest structures currently on the harbor objected to the height of Chiofaro’s buildings. (The rest of us were hoping the proposal’s greater height would draw attention away from those unattractive Pei stacks, making them less prominent.)

Then they complained the proposed project did not have enough open space, that it would block people from the harbor.

Yet Harbor Towers itself has little open space, blocking the public on all sides with solid fences or an iron picket fence barring people from sitting on the grass. The residents of barrier buildings so unwelcoming and so antithetical to the public’s enjoyment of the harbor should reflect upon their own failures before falsely accusing another project of the same.

Aquarium officials are now modeling Harbor Towers’ behavior. Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said the Aquarium is not against the garage’s redevelopment—it just doesn’t favor THIS development.

But that position is hard to square with the Aquarium’s objections. An Aquarium petition asks the public to support “safe and affordable access and where visitors and residents can enjoy open spaces and walk along the water.”

Yet the Aquarium and its IMAX theatre present their own substantial barrier to the harbor. They take little advantage of their waterside location. The main building abuts an unfortunate part of the Harbor Walk, a dreary plaza edged with plastic sheeting, with some seating, tables, utility equipment and unrelenting sun.

An even worse side contains a walkway shrouded by the grim concrete of the Aquarium’s north wall. The least the poorly sited Aquarium could do would be to refrain from criticizing a new development that meets the harbor in a better way.

And that is what Chiofaro’s proposal does. His buildings are only two of three original designs being built or proposed in Boston. (The third is Caesar Pelli’s design for the Government Center Garage.) Boston’s other new buildings are mostly a tired cliché, the flat-topped glass box. The Harbor Garage architects, Kohn Pederson Fox, have proposed a beautiful terra cotta-clad pointy structure that visually slides into its sparkly, pointy-topped lower sibling.

Moreover, at pedestrian level those buildings provide the most imaginative public harbor access of any building in Boston. Chiofaro has proposed a lively walking street with a retractable cover between the two buildings. It is the “Walk to the Sea” that planners have dreamed about for years. Dramatic and beautiful—just what this city needs.

If I were the Aquarium, I’d be anticipating the hordes drawn to Chiofaro’s street and planning how to direct them only a few feet away to the seals and the fishes.

But Aquarium officials don’t see it that way. They say the project’s construction would bother their animals—as would any new project. So how could they support anything that would get rid of the garage?

Both Harbor Towers and the Aquarium have another refrain—they want to pull up the gangplank, rejecting new residents and office workers who will need what they have themselves—room for cars.

The Aquarium spokesman did not like new residents and workers competing with the Aquarium’s visitors, 40 percent of whom come by car. He was critical of the Aquarium’s own Blue Line station, saying the escalators don’t work.

In their opposition, Aquarium officials seem stymied at helping visitors find other ways to get to their door. In a recent analysis, the Aquarium proposed several parking strategies that could serve as points for negotiation.

But that institution should not hold the entire city hostage to its parking needs. Aquarium officials show a lack of imagination and little confidence in solving problems.

Besides, this is a distraction. It’s not only Atlantic Avenue that will see more traffic and compromised parking. Every area around the city’s new development will face the same situation.

Yet we know how to solve traffic and parking problems. We just need the will to bring about solutions.

Copy London’s congestion pricing, vast Underground and plentiful double decker buses arriving within minutes of one another. London is still congested, but all cities are congested. It’s part of the zest. Visit a city that has no congestion, and you’ll be where no one wants to go.

The Aquarium must not know that if the Dukakis-Weld North South Rail Link is achieved, a Central Station would lie within a short walk, bringing suburbanites to the Aquarium’s doorstep.

Boston is not going to stop construction, and that construction will bring more cars, and perhaps some solutions. Instead of bellyaching about a new development that causes fewer problems than their own buildings do, these opponents would do better to find the imagination and will to work with the city to get rid of the blighted garage and address matters that involve no hypocrisy.

Their lives will be better. In the long run, we will all benefit.