Downtown View:Where Things Stand: Winthrop Square

By Karen Cord Taylor

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.

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