Clash of Buttons at Meeting on Winthrop Square

By Beth Treffeisen


A rivalry between two buttons, one stating ‘Keep our Parks Sunny’ and the other stating ‘Let Boston Rise’ emerged at the second scheduled open house style public meeting for the project slated for 115 Winthrop Square.

At an out-of-the-box public meeting held by the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s (BPDA) at 101 Federal Street this past Thursday, residents were able to circle the room, look at the presentation displayed on easels on their own time, and ask one-on-one questions with the developers and experts behind the design.

The crowd of about 200 people, which ebbed and flowed throughout the evening, mingled during the open roundhouse style that led to conversations to form between residents, but no formal presentation was given.

“We had the other public meeting in a town hall style and this is a better way to communicate,” said Christopher Tracey, the project manager for the BPDA. “It’s not like the other where people might not have a chance to speak in that format.”

Tracey said he had received positive feedback from community members about this style of meeting and that more people than he thought showed up and were filling out the public comment cards.

“A lot of people came up to me after the last public meeting and said that they didn’t feel comfortable talking,” said Jonathan Greeley, the director of development review at the BPDA.

During the town hall style meetings, Greeley said there is always a point in the evening when it gets too late and during the 45 minutes of public comment time only about 10 or 15 people get to speak. He said they wanted to pair the traditional townhouse style meeting with something different.

“Here if you want to talk to the Millennium architects for two hours you can,” said Greeley. “The overall goal is to improve the stakeholders engagement… and make sure they have the chance to interact with both the City and the developers.”

In February of 2015, the City put out a request for a development at the site of 115 Winthrop Square, currently a four-story dilapidated municipal parking lot that was condemned in May 2013.

A Request for Proposals in March 2016 called for an iconic tower up to 725 feet “that must contribute substantially to the image of downtown Boston’s skyline” and “that is emblematic of the future of Boston’s downtown”. Six development teams submitted proposals for the site all of which included towers of at least 675 feet.

In November 2016, Millennium Partners was selected. Their design includes a mixed-use tower up to 775 feet tall, which will hold innovative office workspace; residential units; retail, dining, and other commercial space, as wells as residential and private commercial parking below grade.

The entire project is anticipated to include approximately 1,100,000 to 1,500,00 square feet of gross floor area with the allocation of square footage among specific uses to be determined during the design process.

At the meeting about half of the room sported buttons given out by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) that said ‘Save the Parks’ in support of not adding additional shadows to the historic public parks including The Boston Common, Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

“We’ve tried to turn this into an open meeting with no success,” said Vicki C. Smith the chair of NABB said. “We’ve been working on this for a very long time but here they have control over the agenda completely. We should have a chance to have a placard and talk about our concerns.”

In order for this project to be realized, a modification needs to be made to the 25-year-old laws that govern the shadows in the Common and Public Garden. Any structure built over 365 feet on this city owned site would require amending this shadow law.

If this site were two blocks closer to the Boston Common, in the Midtown Cultural District, the proposed project would comply with the shadow laws.

Many local organizations including Friends of the Public Garden have come out against any new shadow law stating creating an exemption for one building sets a precedent for others and will take away even more sunlight from the horticulture and people who use the parks.

“I’m not even looking at the whole study until the shadow study is resolved,” said Fritz Casselman of the Back Bay. “My focus is on the difficulty of changing the line in the law where it doesn’t get changed again. They say that’s the situation but it is hard to do.”

The meeting format Casselman said was also a bit strange. He said he has been to similar meetings at the state level but at the end they all came back together to get a better understanding on what the hot button issues where, “and that’s not happening here.”

The other half of the room wore buttons saying ‘Let Boston Rise’ in support of continuing big development in the city.

It was unclear which organization was behind the making of those buttons but Joe Larkin, from Millennium Partners said the buttons where in response to the last recent meeting when the parks people showed off their buttons.

“It was kind of a hostile environment at the last public meeting,” said Larkin. “These buttons are for the people in support of the project.”

A group of young professionals who wore the ‘Let Boston Rise’ buttons said they where in support of this project because Winthrop Square is currently under used and this will allow for the area to get revitalized.

One member of the group who declined to give his name said, “Usually downtown there are tumble weeds blowing through on the weekend and by having residents down there it will ignite people to use that space.”

Others said they liked the sleek design and look forward to using the area after work in the evenings, when usually the space lays empty.

Mr. Abdi Yusuf the executive director of the Somali Development Center is also in support of this project.

“Some people are here about shadows and we are here because of jobs,” said Yusuf. “Anything that helps immigrants and will give them job opportunities in downtown both before and post development we are in support of.”

The Comment Period has been extended until January 16, 2017.

The BPDA anticipates issuing a Scoping Determination in Winter 2017. The developers will then respond with a Draft Project Impact Report (DPIR) and that will follow with a DPIR Public Process with followed by a 75-day comment period.

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