Sanity could finally arrive on Wednesday in the long battle over the new skyscraper planned for the site of the old Winthrop Square Garage.
In all likelihood, the Boston City Council will clear the way for construction of the Millennium Partners project. That is an outcome that will cheer many residents, especially advocates of more funding for parks and public housing. But council approval, if it comes, will also frustrate critics of development who would see it as a retreat from a commitment to protect Boston Common and the Public Garden from encroaching development.
The new building will mark a significant step forward in the rebirth of Downtown Crossing. It’s certainly going to be a big improvement over what it’s replacing. The old city-owned garage closed years ago after cement started falling from the ceiling. The city was eventually forced to condemn its own property for the sake of public safety.
Yet the battle over Winthrop Square’s future has become heated, for a reason no one anticipated: shadows. The garage — and thus the site of the tower to replace it — is in an area where state law restricts building height. The laws were passed in the early 1990s, at a time when there was concern about the shadows that new developments might cast on the Common and Public Garden.
The proposed building’s height violates state law, which is why the City Council — and, eventually, the Legislature — will have to pass a home-rule petition carving out an exemption in order for the tower be built.
It’s worth it, because Millennium’s proposal promises to do good far beyond downtown.
The Parks Department would get millions from the project, including $28 million each for the Common and Franklin Park. Meanwhile, the perennially cash-strapped Boston Housing Authority would reap a windfall for badly needed renovation in developments in East Boston and South Boston.
And, well beyond the immediate benefits, the tower would inject vitality into a part of downtown that has long lacked it. More than a decade after Mayor Thomas M. Menino first proposed a skyscraper, it’s time to get it built.
“We’ve had 10 years of a whole lot of nothing,” said Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planing & Development Agency (forever the BRA to me.) “This economy and development climate are still strong, and we can begin to reap the benefits.”
Some argue that it is a bad precedent to pass a law exempting one project. Critics also argue that the proposal is a backroom deal that allowed for too little public input.
Then there are the shadows themselves. Models say that a 775-foot tower would cast a shadow on the Common for up to 34 minutes at the most shadowy times of the year. Those shadows, undesirable as they are, would be gone by 9:30 a.m., at the latest.
I can live with that. By the way, existing buildings cast shadows, too. In the models I’ve seen, the impact seems barely noticeable.
This project has the truly unusual virtue of spreading its benefits across the city. Residents in East Boston, South Boston, downtown, and the neighborhoods that border Franklin Park all stand to benefit substantially. For a single project to benefit such a wide swath of Boston is truly rare.
Building a city isn’t always pretty, and there is always something to dislike about the process. But if the perfect becomes the enemy of the good, the vitality that fuels progress gets sapped. That is too high a price to pay to avoid a few minutes of shadows.