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Skinny tower near Common wilts, as developer dishes property off to Emerson

Elkus Manfredi Architects, GRADE

A rendering of the narrow condo tower proposed for 171 Tremont St., overlooking Boston Common.

By Globe Staff 

The saga of the skinny tower is over.

The Swiss developer who once envisioned a slender, Manhattan-style high-rise of luxury condos along Boston Common has scrapped the project in the face of repeated setbacks and sold the property this week to Emerson College.

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Originally proposed in 2015 at 355 feet tall, the glassy pencil at 171 Tremont St. — just 50 feet across — was controversial almost from the start.

Friends of the Public Garden, concerned about the long shadows it would cast on Boston Common across Tremont Street, mobilized against it. Elderly residents of an affordable housing development next door worried they’d be overwhelmed. Neighbors fretted about traffic around the tiny, tenth-of-an-acre lot.

To win city approvals, its developers — the family of Swiss real estate investor Maurice Dabbah, doing their first project in Boston — pared down its size, repeatedly. When the Boston Planning & Development Agency finally approved the tower last fall, it was set to stand just 155 feet and hold 12 condos, with no parking.

But it would still cost an estimated $55 million to build. Despite growing interest in luxury condos in formerly gritty corners of downtown Boston, some real estate experts said the project would have been hard-pressed to turn a profit at that size. Earlier this year Panoramic Properties, which paid $16.4 million to buy the site in 2014, put the site on the market, and then reached a deal with Emerson for $24 million. The sale closed Monday.

“Emerson gave us an offer that we can’t refuse,” said Joseph Dabbah, who led the project and said his firm could have built the project at 155 feet. “I’m excited, to be honest, to be passing it on to such an institution in the community.”

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For now, anyway, Emerson plans to use the existing five-story building for student services offices, said Art Mombourquette, senior associate vice president for real estate. Long term, they may explore the prospect of building on the site. But at the moment the growing college is happy to get its hands on another building that sits in the heart of its downtown campus.

“We’re landlocked, with a lot of great neighbors who have been here a long time,” Mombourquette said. “When this came along it just made abundant sense for us.”

The tower was one of the three tall buildings planned between Boston Common and Downtown Crossing that have faltered lately over worries they are too large for the crowded, historic neighborhood. The other two — at One Bromfield and at the shuttered Felt Nightclub at 533 Washington St. — remain on the table but have been dormant in recent months.

171 Tremont was also caught up in a broader debate over shadows on Boston Common, and a push to change laws governing those shadows to enable Millennium Partners’ proposed 725-foot tower at Winthrop Square.

In proposing those changes, Mayor Martin J. Walsh agreed to sharply restrict shadows that could be cast by other new buildings, at sites such as 171 Tremont. He also promised a full zoning study for the Downtown Crossing area.

The shadow fight, and conversations with other neighbors and City Hall, were a crash course in the ways of big-time development in Boston, said Joseph Dabbah, who first scouted 171 Tremont and other sites as an undergraduate at Boston University.

They didn’t wind up building this project, he said, but they’re looking around for the next one.

“The fundamentals in this city are good, especially in the last few years,” Dabbah said. “We think things are only going up.”


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.