Winthrop Square’s Shady Deal

By Councilor Tito Jackson

The Boston Common has been the playground for Boston’s children since 1634, the backyard for Boston’s youth, and the front porch for Boston’s seniors. The first public park in America, it is the iconic public space of our city. The Frog Pond’s splash pool and ice skating rink and the baseball field draw crowds from all neighborhoods. It is truly the City’s park. Millennium Partners’ proposed tower on the downtown Winthrop Square property would overshadow – figuratively and literally – the treasured heart of our downtown.

The proposed 775-foot, 55-story, Millennium tower would require a special exemption to the 1990 state shadow law, which regulates new shadows cast on the Boston Public Garden and the Boston Common. I am strongly opposed to this exemption.

The shadow from the proposed building would stretch all the way across the Common for at least an hour across the baseball field in the summer and the Frog Pond in the fall. This exemption would create a harmful precedent, effectively nullifying the law. In accordance with the shadow law, the tower height may only be about 400 feet.

I don’t cast blame on Millennium Partners for proposing this excessive height. It is the City’s responsibility to enforce our laws, as well as other regulatory requirements. But the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), now acting as the self-styled Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), cited the shadow law in its Request for Proposals as merely a “consideration to be aware of.”

Further, the RFP stated that, “Though no specific height limit applies to the proposal, the City expects submissions up to 725 feet, in accordance with maximum height allowed by the FAA on this site.”

Not only did Millennium win the bid despite an excessive 750-foot proposal, but MassPort said last week it objects to anything taller than 710 feet on the site. The BPDA, purporting to be our City planning department, is blatantly disregarding both environmental protections and public safety requirements, for the enrichment of the developers. The BPDA must not violate state law and diminish our public parks to enhance Millennium’s profit. Developers can’t purchase new sunshine somewhere else.

The City’s focus on the $153 million bid for this property should not be a distraction from these serious violations. However, I want to address it.

First: Only $102 million will be paid up front;  $51 million will paid over time as condos are sold, a process to be tracked by the BPDA, a notoriously negligent collector of developers’ payments. Second: Note that Millennium’s bid proposed a 750’ project – the only proposal to exceed the then-published 725’ FAA safety limit – with no BPDA objection. Now Millennium has increased even that excessive height by 25 feet, gaining a substantial amount of extremely profitable space. Yet, BPDA has not negotiated a higher price for these excesses, nor allowed a re-bid so that all interested developers could propose a 775-foot project. So we still don’t know what price the market would bring at the BPDA’s unlawfully lenient height limit.

What’s more important, however, is where the money will be allocated. In the midst of a housing crisis and a 7-year wait list for Boston Housing Authority units, $100 million of Winthrop Square Garage’s proceeds would go to, ironically, parks. Perhaps this is to quell park advocates. $35 million would go towards renovating existing affordable housing at Orient Heights and Old Colony. No new affordable housing will be built with this money. No affordable units will be on site.

The 26-year-old park shadow law, for which advocates campaigned for more than 10 years, protects some of our most precious public land – the first public common and the first botanical garden in the United States. It is my duty as a public servant and a citizen of Boston to stand with the Friends of the Public Gardens, the Fenway Civic Association, the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, the Commonwealth Ave Mall Association, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, the North End/Waterfront Association, the Boston Preservation Alliance, and the hundreds of people who reached out to me to oppose this exemption. In the words of one of the many green space advocates, “We must protect these treasured parks and allow future generations to experience the same privileges we have so much enjoyed.”

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