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The Sky is Not the Limit for Winthrop Skyscraper

The Sky is Not the Limit for Winthrop Skyscraper

Initially, the Winthrop Square tower was projected to be among the largest residential buildings in Boston. Developer Millennium Partners first planned to build a 1,000 foot tall skyscraper in the heart of Boston's Financial District on land once occupied by the Winthrop Square Garage, which is no longer in use. When finished, the project was supposed to be the third tallest building in Boston, and the third tallest in New England. It was projected to surpass the height of the Millennium Tower and have a mixed use of office, residential, and retail space. The original tower, designed by architect Renzo Piano, was supposed to have 75 stories of space, along with a rooftop garden and an open public area at the ground level. The developers, however, were forced to reduce the tower's proposed height to 775 feet, and later to just over 700 feet, in response to negative feedback from the community.

Competition for the building space was fierce, and before approving Millennium Partners' plans, the Boston Redevelopment Agency received six project proposals. Plans were approved in 2016, and construction of the tower commenced in November of that year. The developer contends that its new project will bring much-needed housing options and retail opportunities to residents living and conducting business in Boston. That sentiment, however, has not been echoed by all. Concerns have been raised by residents, transportation agencies, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about consequential issues for city residents and the transportation sector.

One of the largest sources of controversy surrounding the project is its height. At its proposed height of 775, the tower will interfere with flight traffic at Boston Logan International Airport. Officials of the FAA and Massport, a semi-public agency that controls Boston's seaport and airport, voiced their concern that the tower would disrupt flight traffic to the busy East Coast airport, and potentially divert up to 21,000 flights. This controversy forced the developer to propose a reduction in the tower's size to just over 700 feet in September 2017. Now, it must wait for a lengthy approval process that includes a public hearing.

So far, public support for the tall tower has not been well-received. Neighbors and aviation officials fear the tower will reduce the quality of life for people in surrounding neighborhoods, such as East Boston and communities in northern and western Boston. Aviation officials say that the flights diverted from the tower's construction will increase the amount of traffic on Runway 33L, which will in turn increase the amount of noise in the surrounding communities. The developer announced its plans for the tower by filing Form 7460 with the FAA in the spring of 2017, and is still awaiting feedback from the organization. Before the FAA can agree to the tower's construction, it must know the height and other factors of the structure, such as total square footage and density. Height regulation for structures in Boston is multi-faceted, with no single agency bearing full responsibility. Historically, the state of Massachusetts has regulated all types of land use surrounding construction, including building height. Over time, it delegated some of its zoning, planning, and redevelopment responsibilities to local governments, state agencies, and semi-public organizations like Massport and the State Department of Environmental Protection. Ultimately, the FAA has the final say in how tall the building will be.

In addition to potential flight problems, the tower's height is drawing criticism from the public for other reasons. Citizens complain that, as proposed, the building will conflict with Boston's shadow laws, which prohibit buildings from interfering with the ability of sunlight to reach urban areas below at certain times of the day. Their concern is that the tower will cast shadows on the Boston Common area and the Public Garden in the morning and at dusk. State laws currently mandate that buildings do not cast shadows on parks and public places during the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.