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PAUL MCMORROW

How tall will a new BRA go?

Boston likes to call itself a world-class city, but it often approaches new buildings with a small-town Puritan attitude.

Globe file photo

Boston likes to call itself a world-class city, but it often approaches new buildings with a small-town Puritan attitude.

From the outside, Marty Walsh’s new Boston Redevelopment Authority still looks a lot like Tom Menino’s old Boston Redevelopment Authority. Boston’s new mayor hasn’t yet tapped a new director for the powerful development agency and is mostly working with a staff and a board of directors he inherited from Menino. The BRA is the most powerful office in city government, and from the outside, it still looks like it always has.

But those looks belie a major shift in the way Walsh is approaching downtown development. Walsh is looking at waterfront development sites like Don Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage and asking, “How tall can you go?” With that one question, relayed last week by his chief planner, Boston’s new mayor has flipped the downtown development dance on its head.

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Boston likes to call itself a world-class city, but it often approaches new buildings with a small-town Puritan attitude. Residents hunt down bold architecture and tall buildings for sport. And developers in Boston have learned that the best way to get a new building through City Hall is not by selling ambition, but by blending in and giving in to loud, critical voices.

From the Fenway to North Station, developers routinely give in to neighbors’ demands for downsized ambitions. This is not because anyone who attends a BRA development meeting can actually tell the difference between gaining or losing five floors in a 50-odd story building; it’s because the BRA has created a development system where reflexive opposition to new height is baked into the permitting process.

This dynamic has imposed a years-long delay on a major redevelopment effort at a decrepit West End parking garage. It fed complaints about an 18-story Fenway apartment tower that would rise across the street from an already-permitted 22-story apartment tower. It led the developer of the Government Center Garage to shave six stories off of a planned 600-foot tower, even though the tower’s full height fell within the envelope allowed under new city guidelines for building along the Rose Kennedy Greenway. It didn’t matter that the complaints about the Government Center project’s height came from a neighborhood that spent over a year shaping the Greenway development guidelines; Boston development politics made the height haircut inescapable.

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This dance doesn’t actually do any good for anyone. The pound of flesh that development opponents extract is rarely meaningful to the average Boston resident.

Walsh’s BRA is poised to upend this dynamic. And it is making its move along the downtown waterfront — the site of Menino’s most bitter development standoff.

The BRA is in the middle of rewriting its waterfront development guidelines. It’s a convoluted, years-long waltz between City Hall, neighborhood interests, and state environmental regulators. The end product will be a harbor development plan governing what developers can build along a long stretch of the waterfront, and what sorts of public waterfront improvements they have to fund when they build. If written strictly, these new regulations could make the redevelopment of places like Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage impossible. Or, they could end the years-long impasse between Chiofaro and City Hall.

The standoff over Chiofaro’s waterfront garage is the ultimate Boston development fight, because it’s all about height and politics. Chiofaro’s neighbors savaged his old development proposals because they were unapologetically large, and Menino seemed to relish denouncing Chiofaro in public. The city’s Greenway development study recommended zoning Chiofaro’s garage at 200 feet — half the size of the neighboring Harbor Towers.

Walsh looks ready to toss this recommendation overboard. He has asked Kairos Shen, the BRA’s chief planner, “How tall can you go?” on the waterfront. Shen made this disclosure last week, at a meeting on the new waterfront development guidelines. Shen added that Walsh expects these guidelines to stand apart from Menino’s Greenway standards, and “put new solutions on the table.”

Shen said Walsh wants to see development consistent with a modern downtown — a downtown that attracts new residents and visitors, a downtown that doesn’t shut down at 9 p.m., a downtown that doesn’t reflexively howl at tall new buildings. None of that means Chiofaro is a lock to build Boston’s Burj Dubai. But it means that Walsh’s BRA is looking at height as a development tool, instead of a four-letter word. There’s a world of difference right there. Even if the agency doesn’t have a boss yet.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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