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Shirley Leung

Shadow debate shows how desperate Boston is for money

This simulation released by developer Millennium Partners shows the shadows that its proposed tower would cast on the Public Garden (arrow A) during one portion of the year.
This simulation released by developer Millennium Partners shows the shadows that its proposed tower would cast on the Public Garden (arrow A) during one portion of the year.

It was as close as we would get to a mea culpa from city planning and development czar Brian Golden on Shadowgate.

“Look, this isn’t the way we wanted it,” Golden told me after being grilled by the Boston City Council Monday about changing two-decade-old laws that limit shadows on the Public Garden and Boston Common.

“We wanted it go smoother,” he added. “But we’re dealing with reality.”

The reality is that no one knows how much longer a booming real estate cycle will last. So when a developer dangles a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the city to reap a $153 million windfall by selling a dilapidated garage, you grab it.

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It’s as if the project’s supporters are saying: Please, people of Boston, don’t ask too many questions or overthink this.

But we should be asking questions — lots of them — and we shouldn’t let the prospect of a big payday for the city blind our judgment on process and the precedent that could be set here.

So this is what should have happened: The debate on whether to change the shadow laws to accommodate a tall tower on Winthrop Square should have taken place before the city put the site out to bid.

By waiting until after the fact, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and his planning agency have, in effect, set a price for changing the development rules in this town. Does anyone believe this won’t ever happen again?

Brian Golden.
Brian Golden. ((Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

Golden will tell you the city decided to put the onus on developers to do their own shadow studies on a Winthrop Square tower. Since then, the city has acquired its own software to analyze shadow effects; let’s hope officials use it.

Just how messy things are was on full display at the six-hours-plus hearing Monday. It was clear dollar signs were in people’s eyes. If anything, we showed developers just how desperate the city is for money and jobs.

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Think of this: $28 million from the garage sale would go to Franklin Park alone. That would constitute the biggest one-time infusion of funds to spruce up the 500-acre park, created in 1881. That’s money, parks commissioner Chris Cook acknowledged at the hearing, that could never be raised privately.

The city’s economic chief, John Barros, was also at the hearing, expounding on Millennium’s pledge to create a construction workforce that is more representative of Boston, with 51 percent of employees coming from the city, and half female and half minorities.

While those are laudable hiring goals, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley pondered why the Millennium project is framed as the primary way to build a more equitable Boston: “We are hinging so many aspirations for our city in addressing decades of under-investment in one project, which makes me uncomfortable. What is the contingency plan?”

In other words, if Millennium couldn’t build its proposed $1 billion, 775-foot tower, then what?

“I want to be brutally honest with you,” responded Barros. “There is no contingency plan.”

The council will be back in its chambers on Wednesday, when it is likely to vote on a home-rule petition asking the Legislature to change the shadow laws. The thinking is that Walsh has the votes to win, despite high-profile opposition from the council’s president, Michelle Wu.

Boston City Council President Michelle Wu.
Boston City Council President Michelle Wu. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

She recently teamed up with formerGovernor Mike Dukakis to pen an op-ed in the Globe asking the city to go back to the drawing board, rather than rush to change the law. (Dukakis has a vested interest, since he signed the original shadow restrictions into law.)

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From there, the measure goes to Beacon Hill. Let’s hope that with a little more distance the next set of lawmakers can separate good policy from bad. While Walsh and Golden can guarantee they won’t pursue more shadow relief, they can’t control what their successors might do, and they’ve just provided a road map on how anyone might want to do this again.

Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, posed this dilemma in his testimony to the council: “What about $1 billion to build on the Common itself?”

What would we do then?

The Winthrop Square Garage in downtown Boston.
The Winthrop Square Garage in downtown Boston. ((David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.