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5-Hour City Hall Hearing Ends In Optimism For Millennium Tower Despite Shadow Law

The Boston City Council is poised to approve and send a measure to relax shadow laws for a proposed 775-foot Millennium Partners skyscraper to the state, concerning some on what this would mean for the future of Boston’s skyline.

The city-owned garage at the site of the proposed 115 Winthrop Square tower

“We’re shutting the door on a lot of private development,” Boston Planning & Development Agency director Brian Golden said during a council meeting that lasted more than five hours Monday. 

A home rule petition circulated in support of the project requests the development be allowed to cast a new shadow currently barred by existing state law. The net new shadow is estimated to be an average of five minutes on the Public Garden and 35 minutes on the Common.

In exchange for allowing the tower, future developments would be banned from reaching heights that would cast shadows on those parks, as well as Copley Square in Back Bay, because the Millennium proposal would have maxed out a shadow bank created by the 1990 shadow law.

Backers of the proposal, like Mayor Martin Walsh and the BPDA, are enticed by the $153M payout the city would get from the developer in the sale of the city-owned parking garage at the Winthrop Square site to use on budget issues like public housing and parks. 

“This is a generational opportunity for America’s first park,” Department of Parks and Recreation commissioner Chris Cook said. 

Others are neither convinced by the financial incentives nor of the need to rush through the process. The Federal Aviation Administration and Massport have both expressed concern with the building’s height and its impact on operations at Logan Airport, which Golden conceded could bring the height of the tower down to 700 or 720 feet.

Fewer floors mean fewer dollars made from the condo sales tied to the total sum the developer has offered the city. Numerous council members objected to what they called a false sense of urgency being stoked by the mayor and developer. 

The original 115 Winthrop Square proposal by Millennium Partners

“To open a 20-year-old law to allow one project through and then close the door again is to me — pun intended — a shady deal,” said Tito Jackson, a councilor representing Roxbury and who is running against Walsh for mayor. 

Jackson believed the Winthrop Square garage should never have been transferred to the BPDA in the first place, as he claims the bidding process had pitted neighborhoods against one another. The city was being asked to sell its soul to the highest bidder, he said. City Council president Michelle Wu, who has previously voiced her opposition to the petition with former Gov. Michael Dukakis, said she wished the council would be more cautious in adjusting laws as opposed to jumping at the money. 

“I don’t believe there is an urgency right now to justify ramming it through, just because we started down this track,” she said. 

Boston City Council president Michelle Wu expressing reservations on the home rule petition during an exchange with BPDA director Brian Golden

Others question the impact and economic soundness of closing the door on future development. 

“Limiting the future height of other parcels inevitably means a diminution of their value and of future potential tax revenues,” development lawyer and former Boston City Council president Larry DiCara said. 

Boston has historically had issues with height. It was the first large American city to ban towers after skyscrapers were first introduced in the 1880s (and only relaxed the restriction the year before the Great Depression). A 1970s building boom under Mayor Kevin White ushered in an era of towers like the 790-foot 200 Clarendon St. (formerly the John Hancock Tower), the 591-foot 100 Federal St. tower (the Pregnant Building) and a 509-foot skyscraper at 60 State St., but they were met with criticism from downtown and Back Bay residents.

White’s successor, Ray Flynn, declared “the era of the 800-foot tower is over” in 1987 and unofficially reduced the maximum height of office towers in Boston from 600 to 400 feet, which was the preferred height figure floated Monday by most of the speakers wearing “Keep Our Parks Sunny!” pins.

A crowd that included former governor Michael Dukakis (head bowed) packed into the Boston City Council chambers for the hearing.

The city, however, appears to remain enticed by the scale and sum dangled by Millennium Partners. Of the over 200 people who registered to speak, most wore “Let Boston Rise” pins and spoke in favor of the proposal.

Despite objection by some councilors, most of their colleagues seemed on board with the plan, which could get an official vote as early as Wednesday before being sent to state lawmakers for approval. Council member and supporter Tim McCarthy asked Cook how long it would take him to raise the $28M sum allotted for Franklin Park in the tower deal using traditional means.

“I don’t think we ever could raise that much money for it,” Cook said.