Old South Church puts a $19 million price on sunlight

Old South Church’s leaders hope a developer will be forced to provide more funding for affordable housing programs.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Old South Church’s leaders hope a developer will be forced to provide more funding for affordable housing programs.

Old South Church has put a price on sunlight:

$19 million.

That’s how much the historic Copley Square church wants developer Boston Properties to pay as compensation for shadows a planned tower at Back Bay Station would cast on the 142-year-old church, potentially causing moisture damage to masonry and darkening stained-glass windows.


It’s the latest example of development colliding with city landmarks and the complex interplay of shadows on open spaces.

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The request also is an unusual bid to use building shadows as leverage to tackle a broader issue: the high cost of housing in Boston. Of the $19 million Old South Church is seeking, $4 million would go toward repairs to the church itself. The rest, $15 million, would seed a citywide fund for affordable home-ownership programs.

As has been happening at other religious organizations, young families in Old South Church’s congregation are moving out of the city in search of less-expensive housing, senior minister Nancy Taylor said. This is an opportunity to give some of them a better chance to stay, she said.

“This is a crying need in our city,” Taylor wrote recently in a letter to Boston Properties. “Old South Church is prepared to trade what we will lose in aesthetics for $15 million in justice and kindness.”

But to Boston Properties, the asking price is way too steep. The developer plans $72 million in upgrades to the dingy train depot and its surroundings as part of its $1 billion Back Bay Station project that would put three office and apartment towers atop the commuter hub and a neighboring garage over the Massachusetts Turnpike.


It said the request is out of proportion with any damage that shadows from one building 365 feet tall might inflict on the facade of the church two blocks away — such as persistent dampness caused by a lack of sunlight. Boston Properties has hired architects — including a prominent New York firm that specializes in preservation — to study the projected shadows. The finding: It’s unlikely there would be significant damage to Old South Church or to Trinity Church, which is on the edge of Copley Square.

“We just don’t see the science behind it,” said Michael Cantalupa, a senior vice president with Boston Properties. “There’s not $19 million worth of impact here.”

Even in a city where so-called mitigation funds and community amenities are standard for large development projects, $19 million is a big request.

Typically, developers seeking city approvals dole out a few hundred thousand dollars to community groups and to fund parks as a way to curry favor with neighbors. That’s in addition to city-mandated contributions to affordable housing — either through cash payments or by building low-cost units themselves. Boston Properties estimates its affordable housing bill alone will top $23 million for the Back Bay Station project.

Old South Church’s stained glass could be darkened by a planned high-rise at Back Bay Station, church leaders say
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Old South Church’s stained glass could be darkened by a planned high-rise at Back Bay Station, church leaders say

Officials with Old South Church and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which is partnering with the church to push for the housing money, acknowledge their request is bold. But they say the costs to maintain the historic church, which is open 24 hours a day and hosts a range of social service and community groups, are substantial and could grow if the extra shadow leads to water damage. They cite a report by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in April that said the shadows would have an “adverse impact” on Old South and Trinity churches, as well as on other nearby historic buildings.


Old South Church would rather head that off altogether and urged Boston Properties to build a shorter building, which the company says isn’t economically feasible. If that’s the case, Taylor said, the church would like to create a fund — run by a housing nonprofit — to help low- and middle-income Bostonians buy homes in the city.

“We’re making a different sort of request for mitigation,” she said. “It was the best thing we could come up with that would really make a difference.”

Earlier this year, another developer’s plans to build a tower sparked debate about the shadows it would cast on Boston Common and the Public Garden. In late July, Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation amending state laws governing such shadows, allowing Millennium Partners to move forward with the project, a more than 700-foot building at the old Winthrop Square parking garage site. Separately, the company agreed to contribute $125,000 annually for 40 years to the Friends of the Public Garden group to help fund improvements to parks.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency has not taken a position on Old South Church’s request for a contribution from Boston Properties. A spokeswoman said it has delayed a vote on the project, initially scheduled for Oct. 12, for at least a month while church officials and the developer keep talking.

“The BPDA will continue to facilitate conversations between Old South Church and Boston Properties to ensure that this project will benefit the surrounding neighborhood and the entire City of Boston,” the agency said in a statement. “We are currently working with the development team on the affordable housing component through the Inclusionary Development Policy.”

That’s the city’s policy governing affordable housing rules for new development. It already requires Boston Properties to include 78 apartments as part of the project itself — or build 90 units nearby — that would be affordable to low- and middle-income renters. Boston Properties plans to meet that obligation, Cantalupa said. But he noted the plans were purposely filed days before more-stringent requirements took effect in January 2016. In part, he said, it couldn’t afford to spend more on affordable housing, given the costly upgrades it has to make to the station and the complexities of building above the turnpike.

“This is already going to be an extremely expensive project,” Cantalupa said.

Asking developers to pay extra for shadows that may not mean much could squelch development in Boston, said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, a neighborhood business group. She said Boston Properties’ project fits within recently written zoning and would remake a train station that many people consider an eyesore.

“I think it’s a grossly out-of-whack request and a hijack of $19 million,” Mainzer-Cohen, said. “They’re doing a tremendous disservice to the Back Bay by trying to extort money like this.”

Jean Carroon, a preservation architect at Goody Clancy in Boston who is working on a restoration of Trinity Church — which has similar concerns and supports Old South Church’s request — sees it differently. The churches, she said, along with the Boston Public Library, bring a lot of people to Copley Square. They are part of the fabric of Boston and need to be protected from myriad threats, including water and weeds that can fester in shadows.

“We want these buildings to survive for centuries,” she said. “You can’t hold a city in place but you need to weigh out the impacts.”

Boston, MA--4/16/2017 - The stained glass windows at Old South Church could be darkened if a proposed tower is built at Back Bay Station. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: 17oldsouth Reporter: Timothy Logan
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.