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Leaders Stress Latest 115 Winthrop Square Design Is Not Done Deal

A revised downtown skyscraper proposal has some calling it a bait-and-switch, but leaders emphasize design hurdles remain.

The current design proposal for 115 Winthrop Square

Millennium Partners won a hotly contested bidding process in 2016 for the rights to build a 775-foot skyscraper at a city-owned parking garage at 115 Winthrop Square. Its design won from a field of six contenders and included a unique Great Hall cultural and commercial center and a $153M payment to the city of Boston.

But the proposal’s latest iteration is shorter and denser, and the new Great Hall is similar to pass-through lobbies in neighboring buildings.

“In the way I’ve seen it, the first design was a proposal on what to do with the site,” Colliers International Director of Research Aaron Jodka said. “Once you’re chosen, you really come up with what can be done there. The community can certainly feel this is a switch, but it’s important to remember this was a competition first, and then you see what you can really do on the site after.”

The public comment period for the new Millennium tower runs through April 9, and comments have abounded. ArchBoston, a popular Boston architecture website, regularly features calls from users chiding the new design and labeling it a blight on the skyline. Neighborhood activists routinely tweet about the diminished Great Hall design, but representatives from the Boston Planning & Development Agency and Handel Architects, the building’s architecture firm, stressed at a Monday open house for the tower the design is subject to change. 

“Obviously, it has changed a lot in design from what won the competition,” BPDA Senior Urban Designer and Architect Corey Zehngebot said. “We are keen to make this a signature, well-designed tower on the Boston skyline.”

The original 115 Winthrop Square proposal by Millennium Partners

The building’s new height stems from the earlier proposal exceeding Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for the area, as it could interfere with air traffic at Boston’s Logan International Airport. The architects of the tower were unaware of height limits in the neighborhood, Handel Architects Senior Associate Stephen Matkovits told Bisnow at the 115 Winthrop Square open house Monday.

“Millennium Partners Boston is constantly exploring ways to keep Boston in the forefront of progressive urban thinking and planning," Millennium Partners principal Joe Larkin said in a prepared statement. "We are committed to designing a next-generation building that will serve as a source of pride and inspiration for the city and that  incorporates innovative solutions to the current and future needs of our downtown community.”

Neither Millennium Partners nor the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District were made available for an interview. 

“I have participated in the 115 Winthrop Square project closely as both a member of the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) and in my role at the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District,” Downtown Boston BID President and CEO Rosemarie Sansone said in a prepared statement. “The Boston Planning and Development Agency public comment period for this project ends on April 9, and we will be responding with any updated recommendations and concerns to our original letter of support at that time.” 

While the design of the tower is still up in the air, the money the city stands to make from its completion is not. Part of Millennium’s $153M bid for the Winthrop Square garage was pegged to condo sales, and that number is not expected to go down with the height of the building. A Feb. 22 letter by lawyers on behalf of Millennium to the city indicates the skyscraper will include 760K SF of residential space, only 20K SF less than the maximum use outlined in an initial project notification form

When the developer announced it was shrinking the tower to comply with the FAA, it was believed any size cuts would come from the office component over the residential. Instead, the letter indicates the developer also looks to boost downtown’s office capacity with 750K SF of office, 115K SF more than the maximum described in the 2016 PNF.

The original rendering of the Great Hall at Millennium's proposed tower

“Original plans, when they are years and years in the making, can change because market conditions change,” Jodka said. “Think of designing a mall today. Who your tenants are going to be today vs. five or 10 years ago is completely different. These pieces change, especially large-scale developments that require heavy investments and approval through the city and go through several steps.”

The changed design comes as several high-profile projects in Boston have altered their look. The proposed office tower at Hub on Causeway got a design tweak this week amid reports Verizon was close to inking a deal for space for its Oath subsidiary.

WS Development has run into its own round of criticism at Seaport Square. While initial plans at the Seaport development called for a 200K SF theater, WS filed revised plans in early 2017 that removed proposed civic spaces. After criticism from neighbors and the city, the developer updated its proposal again and returned in September with plans for three smaller theaters, green space and room for startup businesses and local startups. 

But there is a slight silver lining for the developer’s former sparring partner. Friends of the Public Garden fought the proposed development for the shadow impact it would have on three Boston parks. The organization said the skyscraper’s height would cast new shadow on Boston Common, the Boston Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

The current design proposal for the Great Hall at 115 Winthrop Square

While Friends of the Public Garden Executive Director Liz Vizza told Bisnow she could not speak to design changes, she did note the shorter design meant the Commonwealth Avenue Mall would no longer fall in the development’s shadow. The organization maintains its stance that the development will have an impact on the other two parks, but it is now focused on getting the city to look at overall development in a comprehensive way.

The project still needs Boston Civic Design Commission approval, BPDA board approval and then approval from the zoning commission. Jodka stressed the normalcy of how the design has changed and how it will likely change again thanks to the ongoing community process.

“The city understands a developer or investor is looking for certain things, and the community is looking for other things,” he said. “The role of government is to find a balance between those. It takes time; it takes planning. While the garage is gone, the site is far from being ready to go vertical until these approvals come.”