Credit: Courtesy of Millennium Partners

Winthrop Square: It’s Time To Change The Discussion

April 18, 2017

Millennium Partners proposed Winthrop Square Tower, with it's vast bulk and the shadows it would cast on Boston Common, is understandably controversial. It is no surprise that the debate has revolved around the shadows and the power politics involved in Mayor Marty Walsh's efforts to smooth the way for construction.

The discussion, however, is far too narrow. Winthrop Square offers an opportunity for Bostonians and other concerned parties to take a step back and reappraise how we fund, regulate, and administer our parks, which are vital urban resources. City Hall and the public each must expand their intellectual horizons, move beyond the outdated and inadequate system we use to balance the public interest with commercial development. Boston needs to move into the 21st century. By doing so, it can blaze a new trail; establish a national standard other communities can follow.

The big picture is easy to understand: parks struggle for lack of long-term resources needed to maintain and improve them. In devising a way to correct this, it is important to establish a pool of funds (an endowment, or series of endowments) that will be protected from the whims of whomever happens to be mayor. Winthrop Square is an excellent case study. It offers a unique opportunity to establish in perpetuity income streams to supplement tax dollars earmarked for the Boston Common and Public Garden. We're talking of millions of dollars annually. These annual income streams would be paid directly to a dedicated non-profit, such as the Friends of the Public Garden, which already receives similar payments.

There is a political upside to this line of thought. Creating dedicated income streams for parks is an issue that can unite the mayor with citizens who oppose the height of Winthrop Square. Additionally, there are other changes that can be made to the existing shadow laws to better protect these parks, and changes to how the parks are managed. A new conceptual framework would result in additional money for affordable housing and aid to parks and open spaces in other neighborhoods throughout the city. Reasonable people working together should use the Winthrop Square development as a catalyst and an opportunity to create a materially better citizen review processes for major projects. Boston prides itself on being progressive. It's time to act as if we are.

Here is a four-point plan to start this process moving:

1. The existing Boston Common and Public Garden Shadow Laws should be significantly tightened; the "shadow bank' removed, as suggested by the mayor; and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall should receive greater shadow protection from nearby Stuart Street area developments.

2. The Boston Common Management Plan (circa 1996) should be updated, the city would obligate itself to enforce the plan, and all groups that obtain a city permit to use the Common for major events would be required to pay a $10,000 remediation fee (to be indexed to inflation) to the Friends of the Public Garden. The Friends, in turn, would be obligated to spend on mitigation and remediation. Currently there are no payments made to compensate for damage and wear and tear to the Common by heavy-use events.

3. The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) should agree to create a Boston Common/Public Garden Park Enrichment District (PED). This is vital and revolutionary and it's central to moving park management into the 21st century. This would be first PED in the nation. A PED is akin to a Business Improvement District (BID), in which properties in a designated area pay a levy or tax for the dedicated purpose of improving it. The property owners within the PED have to vote to effectively tax themselves, as Boston voters did this past Fall in passing the Community Development Act. This is what the property owners in the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District agreed to do. The highly successful Downtown BID is an excellent example of how the concept works. The proposed PED would encompass all properties immediately adjacent to the parks, and those existing properties whose shadows on the parks exceeds certain parameters. Annually during the five-year period the BPDA should hold at least four public meetings on the formation of the PED and use its resources for active community outreach. (The formation of the Downtown BID took many years, and three votes were required before the property owners approved it.) The Friends and possibly The Boston Foundation would be asked to spend no less than $50,000 annually to support the PED process. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board, a huge supporter of the Downtown BID, will be invited to partner in this effort. Once the PED is formed the city would not decrease staffing or operating budget for either park. The creation of a PED can be a real game changer for these parks, and the PED concept can be applied to other parks in the city.

4. As part of the revisions to the Shadow Laws, The Winthrop Square Tower massing and height will be reduced to a height not to exceed a certain level to be determined through additional design and shadow studies. The projected shadows may exceed what would be allowed under the existing shadow laws. However, if they exceed the guidelines, Winthrop Square would be required to pay directly to the Friends an annual park maintenance fee equal to the total square footage of the project times $1.50 per square foot, such fee to be indexed to annual inflation. All proceeds from the fee will be spent solely on the Common and Garden. There is ample precedent for annual and perpetual park maintenance fees: The Heritage on the Garden (opposite the Public Garden) has been making payments to the Friends for approximately 25 years, and The Kensington apartment building on Washington Street (roughly 2 years old) is also required to make annual payments to the Friends. Why has the city not mandated such payments by Winthrop Square? It's shadows on the Common and the Garden are, after all, significant. The payments made by Heritage are effectively paid by condominium owners and office tenants, not the developer. That would be the same for Winthrop Square. The Mayor's proposed allocation of the proceeds of the sale of the Winthrop Square site will remain as part of the overall solution and is an essential element. The Mayor has proposed that approximately $108M of the proceeds be used as follows: $35M to improve existing public housing, $28M for Franklin Park, $20M for the Common, and $25M for affordable housing in Chinatown.

The Winthrop Square debate presents Boston with a unique opportunity. It's a chance to transform controversy into a singularly creative act by creating the nation's first PED. The PED, combined with payments by Winthrop Square would create two perpetual income streams of several million dollars annually, increasing each year with inflation. Together, let's make Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of our emerald neckless that begins at the Common, proud that his genius will not just endure, but will be enshrined. Let's not squander the opportunity.

Rob Radloff is a retired institutional real estate investor and a Trustee Emeritus of WGBH.

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