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ADRIAN WALKER

Behind closed doors, the right deal gets made on a skyscraper

Handel Architects

A rendering of Millennium Partners' proposal for the site of the Winthrop Square Garage.

By Globe Columnist 

As the highly-charged controversy over the Winthrop Square tower nears resolution through old-school, closed-door negotiations at the State House, I have to believe Bill Bulger is somewhere smiling. 

Few remember that the legendary former Senate president is the chief architect of the environmental protection laws now being cast aside to allow construction of a 775-foot skyscraper on the site of a dilapidated, now shuttered city parking garage. 

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Given the benefits, he’s probably all for it. Bulger was never one to let pesky details derail progress. That’s exactly what’s been avoided here. 

It turns out that city and state officials, along with the developer and advocacy groups, are near a deal that would defuse the remaining organized opposition to the project. It would also increase the value of an already worthy project, by dedicating a revenue stream for upkeep of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The pact greases the skids for the Legislature to approve the project. 

Under terms of its agreement with the city, Millennium Partners is paying the city $153 million to build on the site. The project, which includes both commercial and residential space, promises to anchor a swath of downtown that hasn’t been a residential neighborhood in living memory. 

Relatively late in the process, the city became aware that the project stood to violate two state laws that regulate the shadows that can be cast by development in parts of downtown. Proponents of the deal pointed to tens of millions of dollars earmarked for improvements to the Common and Franklin Park, as well as money to refurbish public housing in East Boston and South Boston, as good reasons to find a way around the shadow laws.

Opponents saw a sweetheart deal for a developer and a nasty precedent for others willing to pay the city enough to circumvent the law. 

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After months of pitched debate, the City Council overwhelmingly approved a home-rule petition allowing the project to go forward. Now the Legislature is poised to do the same, probably by the end of July, according to lawmakers. 

“The thing that gets the least attention is the transformative nature of the development itself,” said Brian Golden,  director of the Boston Planning and Development Agency. “It will serve as the anchor of a brand-new residential neighborhood in a part of the city that needs new life breathed into it.” 

My feeling was always that a few additional minutes of shadow was a small price to pay for the public benefit that will come from the project. I firmly believe that the opposition will seem silly a decade from now when there is a neighborhood where one barely exists now.

But the deal has gotten even better with the inclusion of the Greenway.

The popular swath of downtown has been a stepchild in terms of financial support. The city doesn’t own it and has refused to devote meaningful resources to care for it. The Greenway’s owner, the state’s Department of Transportation, doesn’t really do parks and doesn’t consider it a priority. Paying for the Greenway’s maintenance has been a perennial crapshoot.

No more. Now the city will set aside $5 million from the proceeds of the deal for the Greenway. The interest from that will yield roughly $250,000 a year. That’s not enough, but the hope now is that the private businesses along the Greenway will contribute to its care, as they should. Those business owners have benefitted substantially from the upgrade the Greenway has brought to their neighborhood. It’s time to give back. 

There are still details to resolve. The estimable advocacy group Friends of the Public Garden remains at the bargaining table, pushing for more investment in the city’s parks and a stronger downtown planning process. Both are well worth fighting for. 

But the question of whether the tower will get built is resolved, and that is good news for Boston. No one will miss, or even remember, the eyesore it will replace. 


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.