Can Boston spur new development and economic activity in its struggling downtown while preserving its historic character?
A new plan from the Boston Planning and Development Agency aims to do just that by streamlining a mishmash of building height restrictions, highlighting areas best suited for new development, updating design and architecture guidelines, and suggesting ways to re-energize public spaces left quiet after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal, still in draft form, culminates a five-year planning process known as PLAN: Downtown. Its release comes as downtown faces challenges unforeseen in 2018, when the process was launched.
The pandemic and its aftermath have reshaped how and where people work, cutting the population of commuters coming into the city, increasing vacancy rates in office buildings, and shuttering retail and service businesses that catered to downtown workers. City leaders are pursuing several approaches to revitalize the central business district, including offering tax breaks to developers who convert empty offices to housing.
The PLAN: Downtown report doesn’t explicitly lay out strategies for revival, but rather offers proposals that would guide what downtown will look like in the future, and how it might evolve. Preserving existing historic structures while maximizing growth in the city’s economic core is at the heart of PLAN: Downtown, said Andrew Nahmias, a senior planner with the BPDA.
“It’s always been about trying to find that delicate balance,” Nahmias said. “That’s why we really tried to be sensitive about how we transition heights between different areas.”
But historic preservation advocates already are pushing back at the plan. They say proposed height allowances for future projects would intensify wind and rain tunnel effects that have already damaged the Old State House, which sits on a corridor of Colonial-era properties along Washington Street.
“Unless we want our iconic buildings to be continually covered in scaffolding and boarded up because masonry is crumbling off them, then we have to take action,” said Martha McNamara, board chair of Revolutionary Spaces — the steward of both the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House — and an architectural historian at Wellesley College specializing in 18th- and 19th-century New England.
The plan highlights five “character areas” — Downtown Crossing and the Ladder Blocks, the Wharf District, the Financial District, the Theater District, and Chinatown — and broadly outlines areas for growth and the city’s priorities for each zone. Chinatown, meanwhile, will have its own cultural plan — crafted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture — as well as its own future zoning study.
One key element is streamlining nearly two dozen varying height limits for different sections of downtown into seven separate zoning sub-districts.
For some sub-districts, heights would be capped at 155 or 180 feet, about the size of the former Ames Hotel that’s now a Suffolk University residence hall. A section along Court and Washington streets would allow buildings up to 400 feet, about the height of the waterfront Harbor Garage towers. The 400-foot limit is intended to be a transition area between the lower-lying buildings closer to Tremont and Boylston streets and the skyscrapers dotting much of the Financial District, Nahmias said.
Preservationists object to the 400-foot allowance. The Old State House, located off State Street at the terminus of Washington and Devonshire streets near Boston City Hall, sits in a canyon of tall buildings that “channelize” rain and wind into the building’s delicate facade, said McNamara.
In 2006, weather had so damaged the northeast corner of the Old State House that the building was threatened with collapse, forcing emergency repairs to replace damaged masonry at a cost of around $1 million, said Nathaniel Sheidley, president and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces. Masonry on the building’s east facade needed to be repointed again just eight years later.
“We should be thinking of how to balance development so we are not eroding this critical resource,” Sheidley said.
Any proposed zoning changes will inevitably be a thorny process, said Greg Vasil, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. He’s still reviewing the plan, but said anything that adds certainty to development regulation in a downtown long dominated by zoning variances is critical.
“If you can give people rules, with certainty, they can adjust,” Vasil said. “And that’s the key thing: What can I do by right?”
The draft report is open for public comment, and planners intend to have a final draft ready by October for a vote of the BPDA board vote that month, along with draft zoning regulations. If approved by the board, the zoning regulations would then head to the city’s Zoning Commission for final approval.