Business

On eve of planning board vote, Winthrop Square tower still has opponents

A rendering of the planned Winthrop Square tower (center).
Handel Architects
A rendering of the planned Winthrop Square tower (center).

After two years of meetings and talk, a long-planned skyscraper on the site of the Winthrop Square Garage downtown is poised to clear a key city hurdle. But its developers still have some issues to work out with their future neighbors.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency is scheduled to vote Thursday on Millennium Partners’ plan for a 690-foot office and condominium tower on the site of the now-demolished garage on Devonshire Street. Approval is likely — the BPDA board almost never votes down, or even delays, a project — but owners of several neighboring office buildings are still pressing concerns ranging from foundation damage to glare from the planned tower’s glass walls to the sheer mass of a 1.6 million-square-foot tower squeezed into a tight block of the Financial District.

The building’s size — it is significantly larger than what Millennium first proposed two years ago — “gives us great pause, and raises significant concerns,” wrote Ron Hoyl, an attorney for Rockpoint Group, which owns 75-101 Federal Street next door. Indeed, he noted, it would be the largest building in the city that doesn’t sit alone on its own block, and in places the walls will be just 14 feet from Rockpoint’s windows.

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“The design of the proposed project thus creates a ‘looming’ effect not only on the 75-101 Federal Street building, but also on other buildings in the area,” Hoyl wrote, asking BPDA to make Millennium scale back its size. On Wednesday, Rockpoint even offered to contribute $30 million to city parks and housing funds if the BPDA makes Millennium shrink its tower to 1.2 million square feet. A BPDA spokeswoman said officials were reviewing the offer.

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The Walsh administration has strongly supported the Winthrop Square Tower plan in part because of its mass. Millennium’s purchase price for the city-owned garage — up to $163 million at last estimate — is being calculated partly by the square footage of condominiums it sells in the tower. So the larger the building, the bigger the proceeds — much of which Walsh has already earmarked for public housing and parks.

BPDA staff are, however, ordering more advanced studies of what will happen below ground, amid concerns from the owners of 100 Summer St., which sits next door, that digging the foundation and five-story-deep underground garage could damage the “structural integrity” of their tower. The city won’t issue a permit to start foundation work until further geotechnical reports are complete.

These concerns likely won’t derail the billion-plus-dollar tower, real estate experts say, but they could be the latest in a long line of issues to delay it.

Millennium and the city first needed to change state laws governing shadows on Boston Common, to enable a tall building on the site. The Federal Aviation Administration then told Millennium to lower the tower’s height to keep clear of takeoff paths from Logan International Airport. Then a city design panel pushed Millennium to make the building sleeker-looking and less boxy, discussions that delayed a BPDA vote originally scheduled for last month.

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And there could be more tweaks to come. The city and Millennium are continuing to talk through design and operation of the so-called “Great Hall,” a large lobby that is to be the “central public feature” of the building.

A variety of architects have pushed Millennium to make its design more open and inviting, while civic groups such as the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy and Boston Preservation Alliance urged long-term funding and an active management plan to balance public and private uses.

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.