Why Do Bostonians Vilify Tall Buildings?

As we slowly emerge from the parallel universe that is the now-completed debt-ceiling crisis, it brings to mind some other ways in which small groups hold the majority hostage against reason, the public interest, and with a profound misunderstanding of history.

I am talking about the way tall buildings are discussed in Boston.

To try to discuss the merits of building upward in the Athens of America is kind of like talking about the merits of taxes or government revenues in the eyes of the Tea Party. Like taxes to the extreme right, height is viewed here as an unmitigated evil.

To hear their vocal opponents describe them, tall buildings violate Boston’s historical character; they are vulgar and smack of “Manhattanization,” and they make the city less “walk-able.” They also cast shadows. Shadows are, for this group, a kind of urban cancer — not the perfectly normal part of urban experience known the world over as “shade.” (Remember last week? Did you spend a lot of time looking for places in direct sunlight? Neither did I.)

But perhaps the most egregious violation of the public consciousness committed by the tall building — at least in the Bostonian (or should I say Back Bay?) imagination — is the idea that behind a tall building, somewhere, someone is making money, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken.

This deep contempt for real estate development and the profits it brings is not completely without cause, of course. There certainly are soulless, thuggish real estate developers, bent on extorting filthy lucre from the city — witness Vornado Realty Trust at the Filene’s site. But the irony there is that the city desperately wanted them to build a tall, profitable, mixed-use tower (and it was going to be lovely), but the market collapsed right after the demolition of the original building. The reason they could propose it in that space is because no nearby residential neighbors could complain that the tower would ruin their lives.

The notion that the for-profit aspect of real estate development makes it inherently anti-public is just plain delusional. Nearly everything built in American cities is conceived, designed, financed, and executed by private, for-profit entities. And as with most things, some of what gets built is fantastic, and some of it is dreck.

And the clearest manifestation of the existential evil of profit is height. Taller buildings will be more profitable, and in the eyes of a significant portion of the engaged public in this city, that’s a bad thing. This is the only context in which a 35-story building can be understood as meaningfully better than a 50-story building. All one needs to do is attend any public meeting on a proposed new development, and the “it seems too tall” crowd is out in full force.

The biggest problem with this nearly fundamentalist view on building height is that it runs directly counter to building good quality projects. Projects are routinely asked to divulge their internal financial documents, in hopes that opponents can bring the project to a position of barely being profitable. The result is that once you reduce the “pro-forma” to a low enough level, the things that the community should actually be fighting for — like better quality materials, public uses at the ground level, excellent streetscape, beautiful architecture, etc. — are no longer affordable.