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Downtown Boston tower would fund needed local projects, darken Boston Common

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Downtown Boston tower would fund needed local projects, darken Boston Common
Sara Myers, BPDA director of planning, said the Winthrop Square site is one of the few publicly-owned downtown parcels that the city is readily able to sell.

A soaring tower in downtown Boston would drape a shadow across the Boston Common in exchange for pouring millions of dollars of desperately needed investments into affordable housing and public parks, Boston Planning and Development Agency officials say.

A potential $153 million windfall for the city hinges on whether Millennium Partners can pull off its proposed tower project at the former site of the Winthrop Square garage, a city-owned parcel. The city would direct the money into renovations at Franklin Park and the Boston Common, completion of the Emerald Necklace and advancement of redevelopment projects at Orient Heights and Old Colony public housing.

Brian Golden, BPDA director, met with reporters to discuss the proposed Winthrop Square site tower.

One problem: Building the tower as planned is not actually legal, unless exemptions are made — requiring action by the state legislature and Boston City Council — or the developers agree to reduce the tower’s height.

Some residents who oppose the idea of a darker Boston Common dispute the implication that it is an all-or-nothing choice.

City Councilor Josh Zakim and Vicki Smith of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay are among voices calling for exploration of smaller-scale options for the Millennium Partners project.

“We definitely think [the site] should be developed,” Smith told the Banner. “The question is do they have to develop it at this height?”

A smaller tower means a reduced payment to the city, as some of the compensation hinges on the amount of condo space the developers sell. But that solution may go down better with some residents, who object to altering laws to help one private firm, and say the sunlight deprivation would damage the parks. Smith said her organization wants to see the site developed, just not to that height in that location. She suggested the city could allow Millennium Partners to build to greater height on a site that doesn’t overlook the Common.

The proposed tower would largely consist of condos, with some retail, restaurant, office and incubator space included, along with a great hall.

The risks: shadows, precedents and planes

The final vision for the 60-story tower is so tall it violates laws governing how much shadow can be cast across the Boston Common and Public Garden.

Zakim said studies show the anticipated shadow could extend as far as the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The longest period of shadow would last for one hour and 30 minutes, states a November 2016 report from Millennium Partners.

Local opposition has come from sources such Zakim, residents groups and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

In a Jan. 19 letter to BPDA Senior Project Manager Casey Hines, Zakim said the building would block enough sunlight to leave lasting damage on the Common and Garden.

“These new shadows would negatively impact our precious parks and greenspace for generations,” Zakim wrote. “There is no viable substitute for the natural sunlight that this building would block.”

In a Jan. 15 letter, North End/Waterfront Residents Association members objected that adding darkness to the parks devalues them as attractions. Granting a one-time exemption from the shadow law is a bad precedent that could lead to accusations that one company is being unfairly favored above others, NEWRA added.

In their view, the law change would represent government bending to private profit.

“Millennium Partners expects the City to have state laws amended for one specific building it has proposed for the Winthrop Square Garage site so that it can achieve an attractive return on a perceived investment opportunity,” NEWRA members wrote.

Brian Golden, BPDA director, told reporters at a Jan. 19 meeting that the agency envisions being able to offer stakeholders a trade-off: Permit the tower to shade the Common and Gardens, and the BPDA will prohibit some new developments that would be eligible to cast shadows from doing so.

The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay’s Smith said residents in her group also are concerned that even if Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration says changing laws is a one-time situation, there is no guarantee the next mayoral administration will not act on their example.

Another objector is Massport, which says the skyscraper’s height could interfere with operations at Logan airport. When asked by the Banner to respond to Massport concerns, BPDA officials said that the comment period is open and that the agency welcomes stakeholder discussion.

Public price tag

Golden is urging support for the tower as a rare chance to win a high level of public project funding, via the sales price tag.

“It will allow us to make investments desperately needed in affordable housing in South Boston and East Boston,” Golden told reporters. “It provides us the means to make important once-in-a-century or more type improvements in the Boston Common. …[and] the opportunity to provide badly needed investment in Franklin Park and complete the Emerald Necklace.”

While the city owns other downtown parcels, all but four are locked up in ground lease deals, Sara Myerson, BPDA director of planning, said. According to Millennium Partners, the $153 million purchase price represents about 5.3 percent of the city’s total budget for fiscal year 2016. With federal resources scarce, city officials are eager to grab what financing they can.

The city would receive $10 million upfront, with $92 million due upon building permit approval and $50 million due at a later date. BPDA officials said receipt of the full payment depends on the final size of the tower. If Millennium Partners reels their project in, it would mean cutting down on floor space and thus payment to the city.

The first $102 million would be divided as such: $10 million to East Boston’s Orient Heights, $25 million to South Boston’s Old Colony, $28 million to Franklin Park, $28 million to the Boston Common and $11 million to the Emerald Necklace.

What money could buy: parks and homes

Chris Cook, commissioner of the parks department, said Franklin Park suffers from decades of deferred maintenance. While current city investments have allowed upkeep of the walking path around the golf course, the funds won’t stretch far enough to make improvements to the paths around the zoo and the surrounding wilderness.

The exact shape of new, tower-funded investments in Franklin Park would depend on stakeholder requests, but likely would include improvements to pathways, lighting and security and fixes to benches, Cook said. It could also mean bandstand improvements and repair to the ball fields near the stadium. Between the Common and Franklin Park, it would take more than $60 million to replace everything that needs it, Cook said.

Cook also proposed investing some of the money into a permanent maintenance fund to be used exclusively for the Franklin Park (with another fund designated for the Common), so that there is a continued source of repair and restoration support. This level of potential cash influx is not available from normal sources such as philanthropic investments, he said.

“For about 50 years … we have not been making the commitment as a city to take care of what is arguably our most important natural resources,” Cook said.

Meanwhile, public housing projects will languish without more money, said Kate Bennett, deputy administrator at the Boston Housing Authority. With federal and state funding declining, the BHA struggles to beat back the maintenance backlog on its buildings, let alone fund larger revitalization projects.

The Orient Heights public housing is in phase one of a redevelopment, with no financing in place for phases two and three. Old Colony is halfway through its redevelopment, and without public funding from Millennium Partners or another source, the project will halt indefinitely, Bennett said. There are 450 units left to redevelop at Old Colony. The anticipated $25 million would fund approximately 200 units.

Both housing sites have a dire need, she said.

“These sites continue to deteriorate. We’ve already started taking units offline,” Bennett said. “The conditions people are living in we are not supportive of or proud of. … They are not good places to raise families. This is a one-shot opportunity to completely reset both sites for another generation.”