Why must a few lonely cranks decide the future of Boston’s buildings?
So, you may ask, what’s the real harm in all this? Well, let’s remember the amazing projects that didn’t get built because the public-review process either took too long or demanded changes that destroyed the economics. Consider the ill-fated Columbus Center proposal, which collapsed for several reasons, not the least of which was community opposition to the project’s height. As a ruse, the review committee obsessed about the developer’s finances, asking to see the books several times. Alternative proposals were made, but essentially, the committee members just didn’t want a tall building and just didn’t want the developer making too much money. After years of filibustering, the project was abandoned. Then there’s the area around the TD Garden, which remains a wasteland for some of these same reasons.
But the saddest casualty of our twisted public process was the Boylston Square proposal back in the ’90s — a magnificent low-scale development by Millennium Partners that would have straddled the turnpike at Boylston Street and Mass. Ave., stitching the Back Bay together where the highway currently cleaves it. But according to the few “public representatives” who relentlessly fought it, Boylston Square had a fatal flaw: a 59-story, needle-thin tower that would have provided enough profitable square footage to pay for the costly low-scale development. The whole thing eventually died on the vine after years of controversy. Millennium, coincidentally, is the same team that brought us the new Ritz-Carlton that’s reenergized the old Combat Zone, and that will at last build a tower on the Filene’s site in Downtown Crossing. Just imagine what its Boylston Square project might have added to the city.
So what has survived this brutal and arbitrary process? The Mandarin Oriental Hotel and the Clarendon are two examples. They managed to withstand seemingly endless meetings because they were luxury proposals and the developers had deep pockets. The ultimate financial reward made it worth the time. Bottom line: high-end gets built; affordable projects that run on a tighter margin get killed by the protracted review process. You see, in the developer’s world, there’s risk and there’s uncertainty. Risk means you don’t know how your project will sell. That can be calculated. Uncertainty means you don’t know whether the public process will derail the project altogether. In Boston, uncertainty is immeasurable.
This must seem pretty good to those who think it’s in the public’s interest to prevent construction of any kind. If that sounds about right to you, then don’t complain when we’re saddled with prohibitively expensive condos or poorly designed ugliness built out of desperation rather than inspiration. And just ignore the huge holes in the urban landscape.
BUT WE SHOULD strive for better, for the buildings we deserve and not the ones that can survive a flawed system.