Proposing any tower in Boston is bound to raise concerns among the neighbors. But a plan to shoehorn a 300-foot high-rise onto a postage-stamp site in Downtown Crossing faces two high-profile opponents: the influential businessmen who own the Boston Opera House next door.
Concert promoter Don Law and philanthropist David Mugar sent a letter to the Boston Redevelopment Authority saying they’re adamantly opposed, rattling off several concerns about the pencil-thin apartment tower proposed next to their performance venue. Among them: Construction of the 30-story tower — where the Felt nightclub once stood — just inches away could threaten the structural integrity of the meticulously restored Opera House.
Other neighbors, including Suffolk University and Millennium Place condo owners on Avery Street, have also sounded off to the BRA about the 533 Washington St. project.
And the proposal is stoking a broader debate in that section of Boston, sometimes referred to as the Ladder District, about whether city officials need a more comprehensive approach as developers look to turn the area’s well-worn low-rises into shiny towers.
On May 16, Law and Mugar wrote that developer Rafi Properties LLC’s tower, at twice the height of what is allowed under current zoning, could set a precedent for harming the area’s “compelling architectural virtues, trending toward eventual change to a windy, shadowed canyon.”
But most of the letter focused on specific impacts they could see at the Opera House, which they bought from Live Nation in 2009. (Law is still Live Nation’s regional president, but the Opera House is run as a separate business.)
Any damage from construction, they wrote, could result in catastrophic losses for the grand theater, with its marble columns and ornate chandeliers. Its primary tenants, Broadway in Boston and the Boston Ballet, could face interruptions. And like other neighbors, Law and Mugar worry about the extra truck traffic on an already congested road that the Rafi tower could bring for deliveries, moves, and trash pick-ups. Rafi doesn’t plan to offer any onsite parking or a docking area for deliveries.
Law and Mugar declined to further discuss their concerns.
Colin Watters, Rafi’s director of operations, declined to comment beyond sending a brief e-mail. Rafi, he said, plans to address the concerns in a more comprehensive report to the BRA, most likely by this fall: “Overall, it has been a healthy and productive process with the city and our neighbors, and we expect it to continue.”
In documents filed with the BRA, Rafi says the project would “enliven and re-energize” the 3,650-square-foot site, currently occupied by the vacant Felt building. Rafi wants to demolish the building except for its historic facade, which would be incorporated into a 105,000-square-foot building with 94 residential units, restaurant space on the first two floors, and office space for a nonprofit incubator on floors three and four.
The project has garnered plenty of supporters, as well. In letters to the BRA, proponents argue it would bring badly needed housing for young professionals and liven the street up, making it safer to walk at night. But few, if any, of them live close to the site, and a number don’t live in Boston at all.
To Millennium Place condo residents, Rafi’s tower is far too ambitious for such a small site, and truck traffic to serve it could worsen congestion on Washington Street.
“The traffic is an enormous issue,” said Mark Winkeller, who has lived there for eight years. “[When] you come down those streets and there’s a show at the theater, it’s already tough to move around.”
Suffolk University, whose Modern Theatre is on the other side of an alleyway from 533 Washington, may also need to be appeased. Senior vice president John Nucci said the school shares some of the concerns held by the Opera House owners: questions about traffic, for example, and concerns about construction impacts on the Modern’s facade.
“Right now, it looks like trying to put a size 12 foot into a size 9 shoe,” Nucci said.
The Rafi plan is one of several in the area with proposed heights that would need variances to exceed a zoning limit of 155 feet. On Tremont Street, another “skinny tower” is planned to be 235 feet high. And a few blocks to the north, developers want to build a condo skyscraper that would rise 59 stories, or about 700 feet, above Bromfield Street.
The solution, many residents say, is updating zoning rules to reflect the interest in building new towers in the area, while ensuring they don’t overrun the neighborhood.
“There’s a reconciliation that has to happen,” said Rishi Shukla, founding member of the Downtown Boston Residents’ Association. “You can’t knock the public for asking the question of why is it OK to go 80 in a 55 zone if you’ve set the speed limit at 55.”
BRA spokesman Nick Martin said officials are sensitive to the residents’ concerns. “We do want to look holistically at the whole Washington Street corridor to make sure we’re looking at projects, not on a one-off basis, but in terms of how they affect the district as a whole,” he said.