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Copley tower dispute shows how not to get more housing built

The proposed addition to Copley Place.Elkus Manfredi Architects

WITH ANY luck, the latest delay in a proposed residential tower at Copley Place will be just a blip in the tortured seven-year history of the project.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority OK’d the 542-unit tower in 2013, but the developer, Simon Property Group, came back recently with some technical changes. At that point, community groups that criticized the project in the past sprang once again, insisting that there won’t be enough below-market-rate units in the tower. Citing a lack of consensus, the Walsh administration abruptly postponed a BRA vote on the project last Thursday.

The script, presumably, ends like this: The developer, whose current plans call for 76 below-market-rate units, grudgingly agrees to add a few more. Affordable-housing advocates will claim a partial victory, because the project will then exceed the usual standard, under which about 15 percent of units must be set aside for low- and moderate-income residents.

But the wrangling over the Copley tower, along with similar disputes around other projects, only worsens the underlying problem: the city’s inability to get housing of all sorts built quickly enough to satisfy demand.


In a tight housing market, every new unit helps — even units sold to 1-percenters at eye-popping prices. Today’s luxury unit is tomorrow’s fixer-upper. When private-equity barons and suburban empty-nesters buy into glitzy new condo towers, they’re not pushing up the cost of units in historic brownstones and older loft buildings. When middle-class professionals can afford existing units in the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, they aren’t bidding up prices in Roxbury, Dorchester, and South Boston.

But for those wary of high-rise development, demanding stiffer affordable-housing commitments is one more tool to slow down projects they oppose. Meanwhile, community leaders reared in the rent-control era put little faith in market dynamics; the way to make housing affordable, in this view, is to pry subsidized units out of developers.


The Copley Place site, notes state Representative Byron Rushing, is public land for which Simon has a long-term lease. A veteran of the bruising battles over the construction of the complex in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Rushing cites the spirit of a now-expired provision requiring 25 percent of any new units on the land to be set aside as subsidized housing.

He sees the affordable-housing rule as just another cost that the developer needs to factor into its calculations. “If you hadn’t decided to build the tower,” he says of Simon Property Group, “we wouldn’t be talking to you. But you decided to build the tower.”

Inevitably, though, developers make up for the cost of affordable units by seeking higher rents or sale prices for the remaining units. In effect, the city is adding to its stock of affordable housing by imposing a de facto tax on all new market-rate units.

This policy is ironic: States impose stiff cigarette taxes in part because they want fewer people to smoke; countries in Europe tax gasoline heavily to discourage unnecessary driving. Cities that need more market-rate housing should make it easier, not harder, to construct. When Houston officials concluded that there wasn’t enough housing downtown, they went as far as offering $15,000-a-unit incentives to persuade developers to build it.

In Boston, let’s at least recognize that housing affordability requires sacrifice not just from developers, but from everyone — in the form of tolerating residential construction that’s higher and denser than neighbors might prefer.


A disclosure: I live not far from the proposed Copley tower site. By one theory of the case, the project will harm the surrounding area through construction hassles, added traffic, and greater competition for parking. Alternatively, my neighbors and I benefit from it because, in a lively city, the more people, the merrier. We’ll see.

What’s clear is that endless negotiations over residential projects have a cost. Mayor Marty Walsh has set a goal of 53,000 new housing units by 2030. Yet at Copley Place, it’s taken about seven years to get 542 units built within steps of two MBTA lines. Boston’s high housing costs can’t be fixed a few dozen subsidized units at a time. We need to get on with building more units of all sorts.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.


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