City officials have known for years that putting a tower on the site of the Winthrop Square Garage would probably throw long shadows over Boston Common and the Public Garden, violating a state law that protects the popular parks from being cast in shade by the buildings around them.
Yet during a high-profile sale process that stretched for more than a year, through numerous public meetings and City Council hearings, Boston officials said little about the shadow problem, beyond an oblique reference to the state law in public documents.
Only after reaching a $153 million deal in October to sell the site to Millennium Partners did city officials begun to notify park advocates and legislators they would need to change the state law, because Millennium’s proposed 750-foot skyscraper may cast a shadow for several blocks, clear across the Common and Public Garden to Arlington Street.
“We had several hearings on this project, and not once was it mentioned that this proposal was barred by state law,” said City Councilor Josh Zakim, whose district includes the neighborhoods around the parks. “I expressed my displeasure and told them I’m pretty skeptical about any changes.”
Zakim said some of his constituents were “aghast” at projections showing the amount of shadow the tower could cast, and at the prospect of amending state law to allow more shade on the Common and Public Garden. Both the Legislature and the City Council would need to approve a change in the law, raising the possibility of a lengthy process that could wind up costing the city millions if the dispute is not resolved.
At issue are state laws passed in the early 1990s to prevent new buildings in most of central Boston from casting additional shadows on either park for more than one hour a day. The laws emerged from a successful battle neighborhood residents mounted against a skyscraper planned for Park Plaza in the 1970s.
The shadow law was mentioned briefly in the formal request for proposals for the tower project that the Boston Planning & Development Agency issued in March, as one of several environmental factors potential bidders “must be aware of.” But the document made no mention of needing to change the law.
Agency officials say they waited to bring it up until they had more information on what might be built at Winthrop Square. The bidding yielded six proposals, all of which included towers of at least 725 feet, though they were of different shapes and silhouettes, and two involved using other properties nearby.
“We needed to know very specifically what we were talking about,” said Jonathan Greeley, director of development review for the agency. “Even now the building has to get much more detailed architecturally before we really know what the impact will be.”
The agency and Millennium have released few details, but have acknowledged that preliminary building models show shadows for as long as 90 minutes in the morning during certain times of the year, reaching as far as the edge of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, around three-quarters of a mile away. Shadows vary widely based on precise contours of buildings, but they can be strikingly long. For example, during the afternoons in early winter, the shadow from the John Hancock Tower reaches across the Public Garden and Common to the edge of the lawn of the State House, according to a recent study submitted to city officials for a new building proposed for the Back Bay.
In the cold and gloom of a Boston winter, even a little sunshine more or less can make a big difference, said Vicki Smith, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. That’s especially true when people are sitting in a park.
“It might sound minor, but you start putting shadows on these parks it really changes people’s reaction to the place,” she said. “You feel a big difference if you’re out there having lunch in the sun or in the shade.”
The Walsh administration is preparing to ask the City Council and the Legislature to amend the shadow laws to allow the Winthrop Square tower. It would require votes from both and the signature of Governor Charlie Baker.
The city agency and Millennium have begun briefing state and city lawmakers about the shade issue. Several said that they were surprised it didn’t come up sooner, and that any changes would require careful study.
“These protections have been in place for 26 years, and they’ve worked well,” said state Representative Jay Livingstone, who represents Beacon Hill. “Any decision to modify them is not going to be taken lightly.”
Meanwhile, the timing of the tower deal is tight. The agency contract with Millennium, which a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said should be signed within a few weeks, gives city officials 10 months to get shadow law changes approved. If they don’t, city officials face the prospect of giving back to Millennium a $10 million deposit. Millennium has said it hopes to begin construction next fall, and city officials are eager to formally close on the $153 million sale of the property while the real estate market remains hot.
But a contentious legislative process could take months, and opponents such as the Back Bay residents group are already lining up.
Other civic groups are watching closely.
Liz Vizza, president of Friends of the Public Garden, said her organization is open to minor changes that could allow the Winthrop Square tower, but doesn’t want to enable more projects that would add darkness to the parks in daytime.
“Let’s take this as slowly and considerately as we can,” she said. “This is our generation’s opportunity to amend these laws in ways that make sense.”
While the conversation is just starting, Winthrop Square’s shadow problem has long been known.
It surfaced a decade ago, when entrepreneur Steve Belkin was planning a 1,000-foot tower on the site. He acknowledged that shadow effects and state laws could pose a “hurdle,” according to news accounts at the time. But the issue faded after that those plans fizzled in the 2008 real estate crash.
More recently, several of the development teams that bid for Winthrop Square this year said they understood that any tower above perhaps 400 feet would cast a long enough shadow to violate the state laws, and thus would need legislative action. But none explicitly said so in their proposals.
“I’d suspect every team thought about it,” said Matt Kiefer, a lawyer who represented the real estate company Trinity Financial on its Winthrop Square proposal. “It may have been the kind of thing where ‘We’ll solve that problem once we get designated.’ ”
And it’s too soon to say precisely what shadows Millennium’s tower might cast. The shape, contours, and even heights of proposed buildings often evolve as they go through public reviews and city input, which Millennium and the city agency aim to begin in coming weeks.
But all agree that, absent drastic changes, the Winthrop Square tower would need changes in the shadow laws. Having a $153 million check hanging in the balance may give city officials leverage to persuade critics to go along with changes. But with a tight deadline, they also risk losing that money if anything goes awry, said Matt Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission.
“This conversation should have taken place two or three years ago,” he said. “It’s going to be more difficult now. You’re on a time crunch.”