Don’t Drape Our Iconic Public Parks in Shadows

By Elizabeth Vizza

One of the world’s most livable cities, Boston is known for the iconic parks that comprise its heart, providing welcome open space in our urban environment while contributing to the physical and mental well-being of our residents and acting as a tourist hub to support our local economy. Boston Common and the Public Garden are parks for the entire city, sought-after destinations for thousands of Bostonians every day of the year. The Garden, with its Swan Boats, is world-renowned, and the Common has served Boston as the center stage of its civic life for centuries.

Since 1990, two state laws designed to prevent “shadow creep” from high-rise buildings have worked as intended – successfully protecting the Common and the Garden, while allowing robust development to continue downtown. Now, 25 years later, our landmark parks face a new challenge as the City of Boston seeks a one-time exemption to allow for a 775-foot luxury condominium and office high rise that will violate both shadow laws.

Millennium Partners’ proposed building at Winthrop Square is poised to cast a morning shadow that at its greatest extent would stretch almost a mile from the Financial District down the middle of Boston Common, through the heart of the Public Garden and onto the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The City’s proposal to amend the state laws in order to allow this building is short-sighted and creates a dangerous precedent.

Legislation that allows a one-time pass to skirt the law in exchange for one-time revenue will create a blueprint for future developers to entice the City to sell more shadow on our landmark parks.

Over the last 25 years, a tremendous amount of development throughout downtown Boston has occurred within the restrictions established by these laws without the creation of excessive shadows. This developer’s own tower in Downtown Crossing and the Ritz Carlton development are both examples of new buildings that have invigorated our city while conforming to existing shadow laws.

The proposed 55-story luxury tower – taller than any other residential building in Boston – would violate the shadow laws 264 days of the year on the Boston Common and 120 days on the Public Garden. No amount of fertilizer and water can correct for lost sunlight – an asset that is important not just for horticulture, but for the thousands of people who use these parks daily as they commute to work, relax and recreate, and join with others to celebrate or exercise their rights of free speech.

There is no ignoring the millions promised to come to the City in one-time revenue as part of the sale of the city-owned Winthrop Square garage – money the Mayor has said would support public housing and several city parks including the Common and Franklin Park.  But citizens of Boston should not have to choose between protecting our iconic parks on the one hand and supporting needy citizens or critical funding for our greenspaces on the other. Let’s not pit neighbors and needs against each other.

One reason Boston is growing at a record pace is its quality of life, and the ability to use and enjoy these parks is key to what makes Boston livable and desirable.

The Common and Public Garden are, after all, the people’s parks, and the people deserve a voice in deciding their future. We need to work collaboratively and think innovatively about how we can revitalize an old garage site and reap financial benefits for the City while strengthening and protecting our signature parks. With the talent and resources we have in Boston, we should be able to find a solution to this challenge. Let’s preserve these parks that we all enjoy, now and for generations to come.

Elizabeth Vizza is the Executive Director of The Friends of the Public Garden, which works to protect and improve Boston’s first public parks — the Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

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