Downtown Boston has had a lot of new development in recent years. Soon, it could have a plan to guide the next wave of building.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency this week began the process of designing a master plan for the city’s commercial — and increasingly residential — core. The BPDA aims to spend about two years, and $600,000, crafting the new zoning rules.
The agency says it will soon hire consultants to design the plan and aims to launch public meetings this fall, with a final plan due in early 2020.
It’s an effort to set consistent guidelines for building in a booming part of the city, where projects often become flashpoints for debate about height, shadows, effects on historic buildings, and other issues. It’s also a recognition that downtown Boston today is much more than just a place for office workers, said Sara Myerson, the BPDA’s director of planning.
“Our densest areas of the city are transforming from business districts into vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods,” she said. “That’s an evolution we’re starting to see downtown.”
That means more emphasis on public space, affordable housing, and how people get around — all of which are called out as priorities in a request for proposals the BPDA sent to architects and planners this week. The agency also plans to study environmental effects of development such as wind and shadow, how to make downtown Boston “super sustainable,” and the balance between development and historic preservation.
The emphasis on preservation cheered Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, which has pushed the city to consider how new buildings might damage or otherwise affect nearby older buildings on downtown’s centuries-old streets. The city needs growth, he said, but it also needs to respect its past, and it’s better to find that balance on the front end rather than fight it out project by project.
“You need forethought and planning. You get better results that way,” Galer said. “Predictability is helpful to the community, to advocates, and, frankly, to the real estate community.”
Downtown has changed dramatically since its last comprehensive plan was designed 30 years ago, said Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Downtown Business Improvement District. There’s a burgeoning tech scene now, alongside the banks and law firms, and more students, as Emerson College and other schools have expanded. The mix and requirements of retailers have changed in Downtown Crossing and other shopping hubs. And new residents have poured in, bringing needs of their own.
Downtown residents and others have been pushing the BPDA to launch a comprehensive downtown plan for several years, especially after a controversial — and now-scuttled — proposal for a skyscraper on the corner of Washington and Bromfield streets. The Walsh administration agreed to launch the effort as part of the deal to change laws governing shadows on Boston Common so that plans for a Winthrop Square tower could move forward.
Reaching widespread agreement on a new downtown plan, however, could be difficult and time-consuming.
New zoning for the downtown waterfront took years of meetings and still hasn’t reached final state approval, while a zoning corridor in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury has been criticized by both housing advocates and developers.
But other corridor plans, such as one along Harrison and Albany streets in the South End, have helped transform neighborhoods by unlocking zoning for a new generation of housing and office buildings.
The goal for downtown is less about transformation than making tweaks. Myerson said she doesn’t expect wholesale rezoning so much as retrofitting of buildings and blocks.
“This is not going to be purely ground-up development,” she said. “It’s going to be more like an evolution of the built environment.”