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PAUL MCMORROW

A shift in the waterfront tower wars

The folks who live in Harbor Towers have a serious image problem, and they know it. There is, after all, something absurd about a group of wealthy people who live in 40-story towers along the waterfront complaining loudly that somebody else wants to erect tall buildings next door.

So the people of that luxury condo association are shifting gears. Harbor Towers’ leadership now says it wants to take the debate over the future of Don Chiofaro’s hated Harbor Garage — an urban eyesore he proposes to replace with two towers that would rise between 550 and 600 feet — beyond a narrow fight over tall buildings. This, they say, should be about the best way to make that part of downtown work better for Boston as a whole.

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It’s hard to know if they are sincere about that. But one way or another, they are setting up the final round in a development battle that has dragged on for years.

Chiofaro’s massive Harbor Garage sits on an acre between Boston Harbor and the Rose Kennedy Greenway. It also sits next to Harbor Towers, a pair of 400-foot condominium towers that house the loudest and best-organized opponents of Chiofaro’s proposed development.

Chiofaro’s waterfront towers would certainly change the view for the residents of Harbor Towers. And for that reason, nobody has fought Chiofaro harder than the trustees of Harbor Towers.

When Tom Menino was mayor of Boston — and engaged in his long feud with Chiofaro — loud complaints from the Towers’ residents were enough to keep construction cranes off their block and away from the complex’s million-dollar views. But a new mayor who is actively seeking detente with Chiofaro has turned that calculus upside down.

So now Harbor Towers’ trustees are positioning themselves not as aggrieved abutters, but as voices for the city at large. They say they don’t want to stonewall Chiofaro, but only to reshape the Harbor Garage redevelopment in a way that creates compelling links between that site and the city around it.

The move is a tacit admission that objections from Harbor Towers are no longer enough to derail Chiofaro’s project.

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This abrupt turn for Harbor Towers is likely to end in one of two ways: Either they end up assenting to a significant redevelopment of the Harbor Garage, or they keep voicing the same complaints they’ve been airing for years — and discredit themselves in the process.

The Harbor Towers trustees said this week that they’ve hired George Thrush, the director of Northeastern University’s architecture school, to formulate their design response to Chiofaro’s redevelopment plans. Thrush is an architect who has little sympathy for NIMBY-ism or for people with a reflexive fear of tall buildings. He recently helped pave the way for the construction of a 699-foot-tall tower at the Christian Science Center in the Back Bay.

Thrush says he couldn’t care less what Chiofaro’s proposed development means for views from a particular Harbor Towers condo unit. Rather, he says, he’s been hired to press a wider conversation about what Chiofaro’s proposed development would mean for the city’s future.

“I’m looking at the public interest, as opposed to any individual interest,” he says. For example, he expresses concerns that Chiofaro’s current design would wall that part of Boston off from the waterfront. He’s also a critic of placing the open space created by Chiofaro’s project between two towers, as opposed to alongside a street it where it would be more accessible to the public. But he’s also likely to be fine with replacing the Harbor Garage with a project that’s taller than Harbor Towers.

Not long ago, Harbor Towers’ leadership was driving a hard line, insisting that any building that replaces the garage should only rise to half the height of their own towers. Now those trustees are bankrolling a much broader discussion. That in itself is both a big departure and a tacit admission that objections from Harbor Towers are no longer enough to derail Chiofaro’s project.

Chiofaro has long said the enormous cost of putting the Harbor Garage parking underground necessitates building a tall tower above. Thrush can’t change that math. The real question is: If Thrush addresses their other concerns, will Harbor Towers get on board?

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