Business & Tech

Developer wins approval for its Winthrop Square tower

04Winthrop -- Renderings of Winthrop Square Tower. (Handel Architects). 5-3-18
Handel Architects
A rendering of Winthrop Square Tower.

Millennium Partners still has a few details to work out on the 690-foot tower it wants to build on the site of the Winthrop Square Garage, but the long-planned project just cleared a key hurdle.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency board approved Millennium’s skyscraper Thursday night, more than two years after the agency and the Walsh Administration kicked off a competition to find a developer for the shuttered downtown garage.

Millennium won that contest and proposed a $1.3 billion office and condominium tower for the site, which wound through various debates over shadows, height and design before getting a vote from the BPDA board. When that vote arrived Thursday, the developers packed a City Hall meeting room with a small army of supporters – from community groups to job-training programs to concierge and maintenance staff in their other buildings – to make the case that the luxury tower would help the entire city, not just its wealthy future residents.

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“The diversity that’s in this room says a lot,” said William Watkins, director of workforce development for the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “It’s a game-changer.”

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Not everyone is sold just yet, though.

Owners of several neighboring office buildings raised concerns about the tower’s impact on their buildings, both below ground at their foundations – which some worried could sink – and up in the air in what will become a far more crowded block. Rockpoint Group – which owns 75-101 Federal Street next door – noted the final version of the building is far larger than what was first proposed, and offered to contribute $30 million to city housing and parks funds if the BPDA would order a smaller building.

“This is the densest building in the city of Boston,” said Dan Domb, a principal at Rockpoint. “And it’s in the middle of the block.”

Rockpoint’s $30 million offer wasn’t taken, but the BPDA told Millennium it must complete detailed foundation studies before it can get a building permit. Joe Larkin, who is leading the project for Millennium Partners, said the developer will continue to work with neighbors to protect their buildings’ structural integrity. He rejected the notion of a slimmer building, though, saying the heart of downtown is precisely the spot for a 1.6 million square foot tower, and the busy energy it can create.

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“Density drives this project. It drives all that can be achieved here,” he said. “And this is the place for it.”

That density also drives how much Millennium will pay the city to buy the shuttered garage. More than one-third of its estimated $163 million purchase price is tied to the square footage of condominiums sold in the tower. The more condos, the more money the city receives.

Millennium has also won over some former opponents with pledges of funding for upkeep of Boston Common and the Public Garden, a potential ongoing fund for historic preservation, and even a promise to return a century-old statue of poet Robert Burns – placed in Winthrop Square in 1975 – to its former home in the Back Bay Fens.

All that support helped win the BPDA’s quick and unanimous approval — a key vote, but not the final hurdle for the project.

Millennium still needs the blessing of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, because of shadows and other impacts on historic buildings downtown, and another round of zoning approval from the city. They’re also still working on designs for the so-called “Great Hall” – a public lobby planned as indoor civic space connecting Devonshire and Federal streets.

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Architects and other critics have pushed Millennium to design a space that feels more welcoming, and commit to long-term funding. Larkin said they’ve heard both points loud and clear and will come back soon with more plans.

“We’re figuring that out, quite frankly,” said Larkin, who said Millennium hopes to break ground this year. “We’re still figuring it out.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com.