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Dante Ramos

The absurdity of the Boston Common shadow debate

The Winthrop Square Garage in downtown Boston. David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo

I don’t know how to put this delicately, so I’ll just say it: The obsession with shadows on Boston Common is ridiculous.

At earlier points in our history, ridding the city of witchcraft and suppressing immoral literature were urgent goals for respectable Bostonians. The movement to keep fleeting shadows off parks is just as well-intentioned — and just as overzealous.

Mayor Marty Walsh wants to sell an old city-owned garage to the developers of a proposed 775-foot residential and commercial tower east of the Common on Winthrop Square. To do that, he needs an exception from early-1990s state laws that tightly restrict new shadows on the Common or the Public Garden. On Wednesday, the City Council voted to support Walsh’s petition, which now heads to the Legislature — which, by the way, shouldn’t be playing shadow police to begin with.

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Supporters of the current law, such as the Friends of the Public Garden, fear opening a Pandora’s box. Yet other than the laws forbidding robbery and murder, every statute deserves a second look at least once every 20 years — especially those statutes affecting growth in a changing city. In 1990, transit-oriented development hadn’t yet come into vogue, but urban planners and environmentalists have since recognized the benefits of steering growth to already developed areas that are well served by dense rail networks.

Unfortunately, anti-growth forces in Boston have stacked not just the laws but also the terms of the public debate in their own favor. If you like flowers and parks and historic preservation, you’re supposed to feel devastated that Walsh is even contemplating a change in the law. To hear some opponents of the Winthrop Square project tell it, the developers are greedy predators; the trade union members who’d like to build the tower are mere mercenaries; the private citizens who show up at public meetings with “Let Boston Rise” buttons have been manipulated or used. (The only people with pure, unselfish motives, it seems, are Back Bay and Beacon Hill homeowners with ever-escalating property values and undiminished views.)

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For me, this isn’t even a close call. The garage is an eyesore. Amid a housing shortage that warps our economy and amplifies inequality, City Hall should encourage as many new units as it can. With the right mix of uses, the new tower — a whopping 225 feet shorter than the one Tom Menino wanted to build a decade ago — would liven up a sleepy part of downtown.

Oh, and the money: It’s a phenomenal time to be selling downtown real estate, and the $153 million that Millennium Partners is offering could accomplish terrific things across Boston. Walsh would commit the proceeds to the Common, but also to Franklin Park and to below-market-rate housing around the city.

To critics of the Winthrop Square plan, this reeks of buying support. “We must not run government as a soulless corporation,” City Council President Michelle Wu and former governor Michael Dukakis argued in a recent guest column on these pages. “Our parks are not profit centers.” At council hearings this week, Wu, Councilor Josh Zakim, and others bristled at the choice between more money for civic purposes and their idealized version of the Common.

But that’s life. Between competing goals, there are always tradeoffs. The Winthrop Square project is just an extreme illustration of what Boston gives up when it limits growth in response to minor nuisances.

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The Friends of the Public Garden has at least signaled a willingness to negotiate. Still, Walsh has already conceded an awful lot in his effort to get the Winthrop Square project approved. To placate opponents, the city would give up a “shadow bank” that’s provided some flexibility for private developments east of the Common and, worse yet, toughen shadow limits in Copley Square. If anything, Boston should move in the opposite direction and systematically loosen limits on growth in the urban core.

Whenever we make decisions about the city’s future, we should indeed consider the “silent voices of future residents,” to borrow a phrase from Wu and Dukakis. But shadowless parks, I’d venture, would be pretty far down their wish list. Given the choice, future Bostonians might prefer more growth, more equity, and greater opportunity — instead of recoiling in horror over shade on the ground.


Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.