A Boston tower and the law of unintended consequences

Building above FAA height limit will affect traffic at Logan

I WAS REALLY BAD IN MATH and physics in college. My brain was wired to appreciate things like alliteration and metaphor, not equations or abstract laws of nature. But I remember one law that was referred to on occasion – how every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  That’s what I’m discussing today – how a decision to approve a tall tower at Winthrop Square, cynically justified in part by diverting a pittance of funds to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway as a hedge against the state’s perplexing desire to abandon its funding obligations, may have a significant negative impact on quality of life in East Boston and communities west and north of Logan Airport.

The first thing you need to remember is the history of the building and expansion of Logan Airport in the 1960s, and the negative impacts certain decisions had on neighboring communities.  In East Boston, one of the biggest battles against airport expansion came in the mid-to-late 1960s, when the lovely 75-acre Wood Island Park was obliterated from the map because it stood smack dab in the way of Runway 15/33.

Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and completed in 1898, Wood Island Park was East Boston’s largest passive and recreational parkland, offering stunning water views and amenities such as a running track, a bathhouse, a public beach, picnic areas, and shaded walkways. Wood Island was sacrificed because Runway 15/33 needed to be lengthened in order to accommodate the safe and efficient operation of jet aircraft, and there were only two ways for the runway to expand – into the harbor or into East Boston.  Massport decision makers in the 1960s chose the latter course, taking both the park and the entirety of one of East Boston’s most desirable residential streets, Neptune Road.

The apex of community opposition to untamed airport expansion came on April 23, 1969, when Massport contractors cut down 30 elm trees and destroyed almost all of what remained of Neptune Road. The community was outraged and acts of civil disobedience took place, leading to the arrest of one of East Boston’s state legislators.  Although these events happened nearly a half-century ago, the memories of the extension of Runway 15/33, and its consequences to East Boston, remain vivid and stand as a cautionary tale of the impacts transportation “progress” can have on vulnerable residential communities.

The proposed construction of a 775-foot tower at Winthrop Square promises to revive those memories by causing significant new negative impacts in East Boston and elsewhere.

Perhaps this is the law of unintended consequences.  Here’s the sequence of events: the state, under the last two governors, has tried mightily to relieve itself of its obligation (legal and moral) to properly fund the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a significant public asset owned, designed, and built by the state as part of the legally required mitigation for building the massive highway and tunnel system we know as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project.  The most recent state effort to abandon its obligations prompted a well-meaning legislator to craft an old-fashioned backroom deal with other political stakeholders. The proposed Winthrop Square tower would be built by Millennium Partners despite its negative impact on the Boston Common (casting more shade on that historic park, as if it is desirable in this relatively sun-deprived city to keep parks largely in shade during the brief months when people can actually go out and enjoy the outdoors).  But I digress.

In return for approving the tower despite its negative impacts on the Common, the Greenway would receive a stipend of $250,000 annually, as partial recompense for the state pulling out a significant portion of its funding.  This was not a zero-sum game, as the Greenway is still losing net revenue under the arrangement, and the loss will increase over time because the funding commitment isn’t tied to inflation. But the deal was portrayed as a victory for all.  The deal was considered a brilliant expression of what people think of as a “win/win” scenario.  Except it isn’t.

This is where the laws of physics kick in – the bit about every action having some sort of equal and opposite reaction. There’s also the law of unintended consequences.  It turns out that allowing the Winthrop Square tower to be built at its proposed height – 775 feet from ground level – will exceed the height limit for that location set by the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure safe takeoffs and landings at Logan Airport.  The FAA height limit for the site is 710 feet above what is called “mean sea level”– some 60 or more feet less than what the developer wants to build.  What are the consequences of allowing a building to exceed the FAA height limit, you ask?  In a word, significant.

Massport has provided comments on the Winthrop Square project in a letter to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton.  In those comments, Massport makes the following points: a 775 foot tower at Winthrop Square would penetrate the FAA’s departure corridor for Runway 27, leading airlines to move departures from that runway to Runway 33L.  This shifting of operations will shift overflights from communities south of Boston to communities west and north of Boston, thus increasing noise impacts in places such as East Boston, Winthrop, Revere, Chelsea, and Everett.

Let me put this in plain English: the proposed 775 foot tower will degrade quality of life in places such as East Boston – and in communities to the west and north of Boston – because it will require flights to shift to Runway 33L, thus increasing noise impacts in those communities.  The tower will also likely cause cascading delays for travelers in and out of Logan because it will put inordinate stress on one runway at the expense of another.

I’m not against building a modern tower on a site that for a long time has been a neglected, unsafe municipal parking facility. But I am against approving developments that have unalterable negative impacts on lots of people.  To give you some perspective and scale, the nearby One International Place is 600 feet tall, so this proposed giant at Winthrop Square will exceed that skyscraper by over 100 feet.  It is bad enough that the proposed tower will cast unwelcome shadows on the Boston Common, and that its exemption from certain environmental rules was manipulated to justify a bad deal for the Greenway and the abdication of an appropriate level of state funding responsibility for the urban park it owns.  But it would be even worse if a tower was built that forced increased use of Runway 33L, thereby increasing noise impacts on communities already burdened by aircraft noise and other transportation-related impacts.  The people of East Boston, Winthrop, Chelsea, Revere, and other impacted communities deserve better . They shouldn’t be the victims of a developer that seeks to maximize its profits by building above FAA height limits.

Meet the Author

The battle of Runway 15/33 was fought and lost by East Boston activists in the 1960s.  In the years since, that resilient community has survived and prospered and is experiencing an unprecedented time of growth and revitalization.  Today’s East Boston is a vibrant multi-ethnic community that does a good job managing the pressures of urban gentrification without losing its historic role as a place that welcomes immigrants, a place where people can find some of the city’s best parks and open spaces (in large part thanks to Massport’s decidedly more community-friendly approach to peaceful coexistence with its neighboring communities). But the community still bears the burdens of proximity to Logan, and to hosting the Sumner and Callahan tunnel portals, and the ugly, antiquated Route 1A viaduct.

East Boston is my hometown and I love it deeply, and so I am writing to say enough is enough. The people of East Boston (and Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop) should not have to endure even more noise pollution because someone wants to build a tower too tall for existing aviation safety rules.  Massport has appropriately raised the issue in its comments on the Winthrop Square project.  It is now up to Secretary Beaton and other state and city regulators to protect the people of the communities to the north and west of the airport.  This is not 1969, when quality-of-life took second or third place to a development-at-all-costs mentality.  Is it?

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and a member of the board of TransitMatters.