Contact Us

BPDA Unveils New Plan To Guide Revitalization, Growth Of Downtown

Boston's planning agency has released the final draft of a plan that aims to help downtown recover from the effects of the pandemic and proposes new height limits for development in the district. 

Downtown Boston

The Boston Planning & Development Agency released the draft of PLAN: Downtown, a planning guide that focuses on growing the city’s business district through residential and mixed-use development as well as historical preservation and public space improvements. 

The plan is broken down into recommendations in four areas: growth, transportation, public space and climate resiliency. It includes specific ideas for how to implement these goals through policy action, zoning updates and design guidelines.

“This is a critical moment for downtown, especially after the pandemic, to revitalize itself and look for new opportunities to bring people together in new ways,” BPDA Senior Planner Andrew Nahmias said at an Aug. 16 advisory group meeting. 

The final draft was released this week ahead of a Thursday BPDA meeting to present the plan and hear public comments, and the plan is expected to be voted on in October. 

The plan divides downtown into subdistricts: Downtown Crossing, Chinatown, Theater District, Financial District and Wharf District, and it has areas known as ladder blocks, which are small historic blocks across from Boston Common and on Washington Street.

A previous draft of the plan was released in January with the new height limits and rezoning changes, but it received some backlash from community members who felt the agency was just restructuring for a single project: Midwood Investment & Development's 23-story 11-21 Bromfield St.

As part of the final draft, the plan recommends a series of zoning changes to height and density. In the Downtown Crossing, Theater District and Financial District areas, it proposes setting the by-right height limit at 155 feet and including a “height bonus” program that would allow some buildings to reach higher in exchange for payments from developers, as long as they comply with state laws governing shadows on Boston Common and Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

“The program will streamline project mitigation that both incentivizes mixed-use development where we see it as most appropriate while, at the same time, fund priority public projects that, in the past, not one development could solve for,” Nahmias said.

The plan's proposed building heights would gradually get shorter as it moves farther out of the center of the downtown area and toward Boston Common and in the Wharf District, where many historic buildings reside. The plan has a map defining all of downtown's blocks as either "growth areas" or "enhance areas," with the former encouraging development and the latter focusing on preserving Boston's historical and cultural identity.  

"This growth focuses on areas where density and height can be best accommodated and build on the layered architectural and historic fabric that is Downtown," according to the plan. 

Another change would launch a separate zoning plan for the Chinatown neighborhood due to its unique characteristics and the ongoing Chinatown Cultural Plan, which is set to be completed in December.

“This is an opportunity to align the process of these two plans and ensure they don’t contradict,” Nahmias said.

PLAN: Downtown's proposed zoning districts and as of right height in each district.

The PLAN: Downtown process was initiated in 2018 after the planning for MP Boston’s Winthrop Center began to take shape. The building marked one of the tallest towers planned in the district at the time and had challenged the state’s shadow laws — restrictions aimed at protecting Boston Common and Public Gardens from shadows caused by tall buildings.

The planning process was paused during the pandemic but was then relaunched by the city last year after the coronavirus caused reduced traffic and a worsening office market downtown. The draft plan aligns with Mayor Michelle Wu’s push to revitalize the district. 

In July, Wu awarded 24 businesses with the first round of SPACE grants to fund the opening of new storefronts to revitalize downtown and bring more foot traffic to the neighborhood.

“These first 24 recipients each have an incredible story of entrepreneurship, from immigrants sharing their culture through food, to daycares filling a need seen in many of our communities,” Wu said in a statement about the grants. “This program at its core is a win-win for Boston, filling vacant storefronts while helping our small businesses thrive.”

Another major part of the downtown plan is its housing production goals, which in part aim to convert underutilized Class-B and C office buildings into housing. The city initiated its Downtown Office Conversion study tangentially with the plan and has found a high concentration of those conversions could potentially occur in the Financial District, Wharf District and ladder blocks.  

Earlier in the month, Wu announced the launch of an office-to-residential conversion pilot program that would incentivize downtown office owners through a tax cut of up to 75% of the standard rate. The cuts could be provided to residential projects for up to 29 years.

PLAN: Downtown and the city's office conversion study are on track to be finalized by October, according to the city.