The City Council voted 10-3 to approve a plan in which Millennium Partners would pay the city $153 million to buy the condemned Winthrop Square garage and replace it with a $1-billion tower that could reach 775 feet in height.
The deal - opposed by councilors Jackson, Zakim and Wu - requires an act of the legislature because the building would violate a current state law banning shadows on the Boston Common.
The measure approved by the council asks the legislature for changes in state law that would allow the building, ban further shadows from downtown structures on the Common and the Public Garden, enact some shadow protections for Copley Square and require the Boston Planning and Development Agency to live up to the first part of its name and study future development downtown.
Millennium Partners would pay Boston a little more than $100 million up front in exchange for the garage and then pay the rest out as it sold condos in the building.
"I am confident that this deal is one of the strongest deals that has ever been crafted for the city of Boston," Councilor Bill Linehan (South Boston, South End, Chinatown, Downtown) said. Linehan said the deal would not only mean payments that would be put to good use but would mean $12 million a year in new annual tax payments as well as thousands of construction and permanent jobs and additional payments toward affordable housing in Chinatown and workforce development. And it would rid the city of a concrete eyesore now used for "illicit, illegal and unsavory activities." All that for some shadows that, even on the worst days would mean "minimal impact" on the Common - and only then before 9:30 a.m.
Councilor Josh Zakim (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Fenway, Mission Hill) said he could not vote for a project that has involved "pitting neighbors and against neighbors, park against park." And he said the BPDA and Millennium Partners had turned the whole thing into an "all or nothing proposal" that made it difficult for him and parks advocates to really evaluate the proposal. He said that the current shadow law obviously has not slowed development in Boston and that the proposed shadow protections for Copley Square might be "very illusory" because they would exempt several projects that have been approved but not yet started.
Councilor Tito Jackson (Roxbury), as he has done before, blasted the deal and the BPDA, in part for essentially creating new policy based on a single building project. And he accused the administration and the BPDA of selling "the soul of Boston" for money.
He said he does not understand how the BPDA failed to realize before it requested bids that there might be issues at the site with shadows and with FAA height requirements for buildings near Logan Airport. "They don't even plan before they develop," despite their new name, he said, adding that even when it was still the BRA, the authority tried to sell off the parcel before even talking to the council, summing up the whole process as "mistake after mistake, lack of transparency after lack of transparency."
He added that he's amazed that in a deal that's supposed to be all about "inclusion," Millennium Partners doesn't have a single equity partner who is a person of color or a woman.
Councilor Sal LaMattina (North End, East Boston, Charlestown) said the BPDA came up with the best possible deal for the city and said he would not want to delay Millennium Partners' work, because that could mean "we have another eyesore for decades."
And he said the payments will transform the lives of people now living in decaying apartments at Orient Heights.
LaMattina at first denied he was "selling his soul," but then continued, "I will sell my soul so poor people can live in decent housing. ... Yes, I sold my soul but guess what? I'm going to sleep better" because poor residents will have decent apartments.
Councilor Ayanna Pressley (at large), said the deal means "a rare opportunity" to improve parks and low-income housing - as well as a chance to really ensure a major project that will try for a construction workforce that is at least half Boston residents, half minority and half women. She added, "this is not a period, full stop; it's a comma" because the city still has ways to go to become fully inclusionary. She called on councilors to avoid the "self-righteous indignation" plaguing the rest of the country and do even more towards an equitable society.
Councilor Andrea Campbell (Dorchester) also raised the issue of equity in voting for the project. She said most of her constituents who have contacted her supported the proposal, because it would mean more money for Franklin Park and more chances for construction jobs. Many, she said, feel "we don't get what the residents of West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Beacon Hill, the South End, the Back Bay get" when it comes to parks, schools, housing and other city services.
Campbell acknowledged opponents have "legitimate reasons" for opposing a deal because key parts of it were negotiated behind closed doors and said the process should be "a learning lesson for all of us" to be open from the beginning.
Councilor Matt O'Malley (Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury), started by saying he would pit his park advocacy against anybody's, before saying the benefits of the deal far outweight the shadows.
And he said the deal is not setting a precedent because there are no other decaying city properties, save mayby City Hall Plaza, that could be traded for an infusion of cash. "There's no Pandora's Box," he said, calling the deal "aboslutely transormational" for both the two parks and the people in the two housing developments. "$25 million or $28 million for Franklin Park will be absolutely amazing," he said, adding he could think of no better way of celebrating Emerald Necklace builder Frederick Law Olmsted's 195th birthday today than voting in favor.
Other councilors did not speak on the merits of the proposal.