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Controversy Surrounds Back Bay Station Shadows

Controversy Surrounds Back Bay Station Shadows

With a vibrant economy and increasing population, Boston's Back Bay Station is an up-and-coming spot. To meet the area's housing needs, developer Boston Properties is proposing the construction of a 365 ft. residential tower. If and when finished, the project, which will be constructed in the Financial District at the town-owned site formerly for the Winthrop Square Garage, will be the largest residential structure in Boston. Boston Properties, the developer behind the project, argues that the residential establishment will create a revitalized and more appealing Station, and it will bring more living opportunities to Boston. The tower itself is part of a comprehensive 1.26M SF project designed to improve the adjacent transit hub. It will also consist with Boston's recent building boom, which includes the new construction of apartments, hotels, condominiums, and residences for students around key transportation centers throughout the city. For the exposure and opportunity, Boston Properties is willing to pay the city over $150M for the tower.

Not everyone, however, welcomes the tower. Because of its height, the tower would cast shadows over neighboring buildings, including the Boston Public Library's McKim Building, the YWCA at Stuart and Clarendon, and various historic areas across Back Bay and South End. Several organizations are calling on the city, and ultimately the state, to reconsider allowing the developer to complete the tower's construction. Two of Boston's oldest houses of worship, Trinity Church and Old South Church, are particularly unhappy about the prospect of having a large tower in the area. They argue that at certain times of the day and year, the building will leave their properties in the dark. A main concern is that the tower will block natural sunlight from entering the churches' interiors during the winter morning hours. This will reduce the luminosity of the churches' stained glass windows and potentially deter worshippers, particularly during important holiday services. Their concerns are being advanced by the Massachusetts Historic Commission, which is a state-operated organization designed to protect historic properties throughout Massachusetts.

Emotions are not the only issue at stake. Current city and state zoning laws set strict limitations on the amount of shadows allowed on Boston Common and the Public Garden during certain times. At present, the building will comply with shadow regulations for less than half the year in Boston Common, and for approximately 250 days in the Public Garden. Zoning laws in these two locations, established in the 1990s, prohibit new buildings from throwing shadows over parks and other areas during the first hour after sunrise or before 7 a.m. (whichever comes first) or the remaining hour before sunset. Opposing voices to the tower's development raise concerns that the project will conflict with the intent of state laws, which is to balance economic development while letting natural sunlight into urban areas and preserving open space.

With the issues at hand, Boston and the state must now decide the fate of the project. So far, Boston has shown support for the developers, as officials plan to introduce legislation to allow the project to continue as planned without modifications. Although the legislation would alter current zoning laws to permit the tower, it would make shadow laws more restrictive for future projects. The question remains on what path future development in Boston will take, and whether the city sacrifices historical areas and sunlight for a more vertical layout and a higher profile.