Shadow vs $: It’s the wrong debate

This is not how a world-class city manages development

THE WINTHROP SQUARE DEVELOPMENT proposed by Millennium Partners is not about the shadows on the Public Garden.  It’s about the fact that every major development proposal in Boston seems to be a new discussion, as if we’ve never seen such a thing before.  And each new development appears to be negotiated in complete isolation, apart from any comprehensive vision or plan for the redevelopment and economic expansion of the city.

I’m reminded of the pulp fiction character The Shadow, who was imbued with “the power to cloud men’s minds.”  And it is breathtaking how easily distracted from the real issues we become concerning new development proposals – how clouded our minds become.  As I write this, the City Council has just voted to approve the Winthrop Square development, and its attendant shadows, with councilors citing the $153 million the developers have agreed to pay for the site, and all the good city officials promise to do with it.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency successfully framed the decision in the following terms:  Is the relatively small additional shadow to be cast on the Public Garden by this tower worth $153 million?  If you live near Franklin Park, or any of the other places where the BPDA promised to spend the millions, the answer is, obviously, yes.  I live a 10-minute walk from the Public Garden, and even I can’t remember the last time I strolled by there at 9:30 in the morning in the winter, when the shadow will be its most apparent. Even I, frankly, don’t care so much about that shadow.  But whether the shadow is worth that amount of money is the wrong question.  This is not how a world-class city manages growth and development, and this is not how we should be evaluating a project of this magnitude.

Tall towers in the downtown of Boston are, generally, a terrific idea.  Tall towers with housing, even better.  They infuse life in the business district outside of office hours, creating a 24-hour environment and utilizing infrastructure during low usage times, thereby allowing growth without the expense of expanding transit and other services.  So, you would think that a tower on the Winthrop Garage site might comport with some previous thinking on this subject.   And you might think that the proposed development has some positive and negative impacts, apart from the money and the shadow.  I’ve not heard them.  It comes down to shadow versus dollars.

Boston is obviously an old city, and cookie-cutter zoning rules that work in suburban communities, or smaller cities with less development pressure, won’t work here.  But I remember arriving in Boston in the early 1990s, having practiced land use law in Connecticut for 10 years prior, and being stunned by the lack of planning criteria or standards applied to development proposals here.  Not much has changed in the 25 years since. The zoning variance process alone is nothing short of the Wild West, although I appreciate Mayor Marty Walsh’s progress on reform in that area.

Without any objective criteria with which to evaluate development proposals, which can have enormous impacts on their neighbors and on the city as a whole, we resort to forming so-called Citizens’ Advisory Committees.  Appointed by City Hall, their purpose seems to be to tamp down neighborhood objections, primarily by wearing people out with long, incredibly boring public meetings, and by extorting “community benefits,” until everyone finally collapses from exhaustion.  Essentially, every development proposal is a free-form negotiation, and a completely novel negotiation at that.

The problems that flow from this approach are myriad.  Property owners don’t have any understanding of what is permitted on their property.  For the same reason, developers don’t know what sort of development to propose, and community members have no idea how their neighborhood is expected to develop in the future.  It’s all so unpredictable.

While residents with legitimate interest in a proposal cool their heels in endless meetings where architects and lawyers drone on, the developers meet with the BPDA and the city officials at City Hall – in the shadows, so to speak.  Citizens, for good reason, begin to view the process as corrupt – not in the sense that public officials are taking money, but in the sense that the public “process” is not legitimate.  And without clearly articulated criteria, by which all development proposals are consistently evaluated, why would they conclude otherwise?  Citizens lose faith that their government is looking out for their best interests, and they assume the worst.

This is how we get to where we are with Winthrop Square. City officials and the developer dangle dollar bills in the faces of citizens in JP or Roxbury, and their elected representatives, in exchange for a “yes” vote on the wrong question:  Would you rather there be sunlight on the Public Garden at 9:30 a.m. in the winter, or would you prefer to have this money?

If we approached development in a thoughtful, consistent, fair, and transparent way, we’d be asking a different question:  Does this proposal meet the criteria for the redevelopment and growth of our city that we have adopted for this site?

Meet the Author

If these criteria exist, they haven’t been articulated publicly, nor been part of the public debate.  Do they exist?  Does the proposed development meet those criteria?  Apparently, only the Shadow knows.

Peter O’Connor, a former city and state government official, is a real estate and economic development consultant and lawyer in Boston.  He can be reached at peteroconnorboston@gmail.com.