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BPDA Proposes New Height Limits In Parts Of Downtown Boston

The Boston Planning & Development Agency is proposing new zoning changes for the Downtown and Chinatown neighborhoods that would increase the maximum heights allowed in certain areas.

A rendering of Midwood's proposed 11-21 Bromfield St. project near Downtown Crossing.

The updates would create a baseline height maximum of 125 feet on a series of downtown blocks, but it would allow developers to exceed the basline and build up to 155, 180 and even 400 feet in certain areas if they contribute to a new fund for neighborhood benefits, the Boston Business Journal reported.

BPDA hosted a meeting Tuesday evening that laid out the potential changes to the plan, and it said it expects to release a formal draft of the changes in June. 

The new proposal is designed to make zoning in the neighborhoods clearer and move away from the typical project-by-project development process. The proposals come as Mayor Michelle Wu has vowed to revitalize Boston’s downtown as it continues to slowly recover from the pandemic. 

“Height is really the element that constricts development and it’s regulated in different zoning districts as well as PDAs,” BPDA Senior Planner Andrew Nahmias said at the meeting. “Development really conforms to as-of-right zoning. Often large projects are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.”

The BPDA’s proposed development process is supposed to help preserve historical buildings in Downtown and Chinatown, bring on growth and create a public benefit system.

In 2020, the BPDA proposed two scenarios for the neighborhoods that followed laws governing shadows cast on the Boston Common and the Federal Aviation Administration’s height requirements across Downtown and Chinatown. The second scenario was the favored choice among residents because it lowered maximum building heights in so-called Character Preservation Areas to 125 feet.

“What we heard from last meeting and when this was first proposed in 2020 is that there is an overall preference in Scenario Two and the approach to creating these different Character Preservation Areas as well as identifying areas for prioritized growth,” Nahmias said.

The new updates to the scenario include a laddered approach to building height coming from State Street that goes from a maximum height of 180 to 155 feet the closer the block is to the Boston Common. 

Impact Advisory Group member Kim Trask said that the latest vision for the "ladder blocks" from State Street to the Common, broken up into three different blocks, was a complete switch from the last draft of the plan that didn't have the 155-foot maximum. 

“This proposal that was just shown is a shock because the entire process had a proposal around Character Disctricts,” Trask said. “This proposals is completely undermining the prioritization of preservation of that area.” 

She went on to mention the numerous landmarks in the district that would be affected by the raise in height maximums including the Old State House.

Trask said the proposal also seems to be in favor of developers, like Midwood Investment & Development, that are planning big projects that are above the baseline height requirements.

The New York-based developer filed revised plans last month for its 23-floor, 410K SF office building proposal on the corner of Bromfield and Washington streets last month. The proposal would replace four existing buildings including the Jewelers Exchange building, the Boston Business Journal reported.

The Financial District, Theatre District and the Wharf District Preservation Area height restrictions haven't changed since the last proposal.

In October, Mayor Michelle Wu released a report conducted by the city and Boston Consulting Group about the challenges downtown has faced, and she set an initiative to revitalize and reimagine the neighborhood. 

The report marked the relaunch of the rezoning effort, which had originally begun in 2018 but had to pause due to the pandemic in 2020. The plan is still in its beginning stages as the city and resident groups work together to come to the best plan for the neighborhoods.