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With Harbor Garage tower under city review, Chiofaro has some persuading to do

Renderings of Don Chiofaro's proposed skyscraper on the Boston waterfront.
Renderings of Don Chiofaro's proposed skyscraper on the Boston waterfront.Tomorrow AB/KPF

For more than a decade, Don Chiofaro has been trying to persuade people to let him build a skyline-altering skyscraper on the edge of Boston Harbor.

He still has some persuading to do.

As city review of Chiofaro’s 44-story “Pinnacle” tower gets underway in earnest, the Boston Planning and Development Agency recently published more than 750 pages of public comment letters about the project that it received in recent months. Those comments were largely negative.

From various civic groups and elected officials suggesting “improvements,” to residents of neighboring Harbor Towers who still don’t like it, to environmental advocates worried about rising seas swamping the area, many clearly remain unconvinced by Chiofaro’s plan for a 600-foot-high office and apartment tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage.

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“In every respect, this project is off the scale,” wrote Monica Collins, in one of hundreds of letters critiquing the tower. “In size, in climate impact, in having an... ill effect on the city of Boston right now. This is a project for another age.”

The criticisms reflect the continued divisions over the tower, which been discussed and debated through multiple mayoral administrations and seemingly endless state and local planning efforts. In 2018, the Baker administration approved zoning that allows for a 600-foot tower, provided it leaves half the site open for public access at the ground level. Mayor Martin J. Walsh had previously done the same. And so in January Chiofaro finally unveiled his vision, launching a Boston Planning & Development Agency review of the building itself.

Then came COVID-19, which derailed the BPDA process for months, and added to the list of concerns that neighbors have about Chiofaro’s tower. Along with worries about waterfront access, traffic, and resiliency to climate change, questions are sprinkled among the letters asking about demand for a high-end office and condo tower at a time when many people have left cities, with no sign yet of a return.

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“Do companies really want to maintain significant real estate when many employees can work effectively from pretty much anywhere?” wrote Bethan Jones. “The plan does not seem to reflect the times.”

But the tower certainly has its fans. More than one pointed to the concrete block of a garage there now and said Chiofaro’s building would be a vast improvement.

“Build this now!” wrote Dan Shea of Boston. “It’s insane that Boston needs 13 years to allow a hideous brutalist parking garage to be redeveloped. How many historic buildings have we lost in that period?”

For all the commentary, Chiofaro mainly has an audience of two who really matter: state environmental secretary Kathleen Theoharides, and Walsh.

Theoharides’s agency, which must approve the project, responded last month to Chiofaro’s plan, with a 25-page document outlining more study that is needed. Walsh — who has generally supported Chiofaro’s ambitions, in contrast to his predecessor, the late mayor Thomas M. Menino — will do the same, through the BPDA in coming weeks. Executives with the Chiofaro Co. said they’ll consider public comment and official suggestions, and refine what they referred to as a “first draft” of the project.

“We will conduct a thorough review of all the comments received, as well as the state and city scoping determinations,” Chiofaro Co. said in a statement. “We anticipate the project will evolve in conjunction with robust outreach and collaboration efforts.”

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That evolution could assuage some concerns — such as those from waterfront and pedestrian advocates about how the building looks and feels on the street — with tweaks around the edges. It’ll probably come with more climate change defenses as a city plan to cope with sea-level rise downtown takes further shape. At some point, they’ll need to win over the neighboring New England Aquarium, which remains fiercely opposed and filed a 32-page letter detailing their concerns and saying the tower must “go back to the drawing board.”

But, after pushing for years for an even taller building, Chiofaro seems less willing to budge on the tower’s current 600-foot height, or to much reduce the 865,000 square feet of space. Those who feel the whole enterprise is an ill-conceived mess that is better left not done, are unlikely to be satisfied by any revisions. Which means more letters to come like this one from Henry Paulus of Harbor Towers.

“I would therefore propose that the garage, ugly as it is, be left alone until the end of the century,” he wrote, “when it will, together with the Aquarium, Harbor Towers, and the Greenway, be submerged under the waters of Boston Harbor.”


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