Shadow Boxing: The Fight Over Park Sunlight Still Burning Strong

Beacon Hill lawmakers want to prevent 'new shadows' from developments from blocking sunlight in city parks.

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State Representative Byron Rushing wants to make sure the sun is shining in Boston, and he’s trying to block big buildings from casting ominous shadows across parks and other recreational spots.

But members of a Back Bay group say a bill sponsored by the elected official, which would bar developers from building up, is bad for the economy and the environment. On Thursday, Rushing’s proposal went before the legislature’s Joint Environment Committee, but was met by brash comments from Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, and many others.

Rushing’s bill, called “An act protecting sunlight in certain public parks,” would stop developers from constructing buildings that would stop light from shining “on an area which is not cast in shadow at such time by a structure.” The wording in the proposal does not impact existing buildings, projects within the zoning codes of Boston, Cambridge, and Lynn—which are the park areas Rushing is trying to protect—and does not include shadows cast by flagpoles or antennas attached to structures.

It does, however, look to stop shadows from blocking light along the Charles River Esplanade, at Christopher Columbus Park, the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, the Copley Square Park, and the Back Bay Fens. The latter, of which, Mainzer-Cohen does not agree with. “If development height is limited, development will spread out,” she said. “What is more beneficial to the environment than for people to live near where they work, which this area is known for; America’s walking City. Surrounded by the rigidly protected architectural districts of the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the South End, and St. Botolph, this bill would essentially prohibit smart growth in Boston.”

Mainzer-Cohen also said it would have environmental impacts down the line.

The original law, which keeps shadows off the lawns of the Boston Common and the Public Garden, was passed in 1990, and Rushing’s proposal would simply add on to it, he says. Rushing says he is merely adding to the wording, so he can save some parks from going dark. “It’s an attempt to make sure that the limited public space and parks in Downtown neighborhoods are protected from excessive shade. When people go out to the park, they will get to see the sky and get some sun,” he says. “My sense is that the opposition from developers is just a knee-jerk reaction. If most developers have their way, there would be no zoning laws to begin with.”

Rushing says the bill will not go to a committee for review. This is the third time this bill has been filed on Beacon Hill, and in the past the committee has put it in “studies,” where they often die.

“[This idea] is better for the earth, and for the carbon footprint,” says Rushing.