A divided City Council could vote Wednesday on a plan to let a proposed $1-billion, 750-foot tower rise on the site of a condemned city garage in Winthrop Square in exchange for a $153 million sale price proponents would go to much needed renovation work on Boston Common, in Franklin Park and at the Old Colony and Orient Heights house developments, but which opponents say would open the city to even more problems with developers with lots of money.
Proponents, who include Mayor Walsh and the BPDA, are seeking a change in state law that would exempt the tower from a ban on shadows on the Common and the Public Garden. Their proposed request to the state legislature would include a ban on further Common shadow-casting buildings downtown, a detailed planning study of the "Midtown Cultural District" - basically Downtown Crossing and the Financial District - and restrictions on buildings that might cast shadows on Copley Square park.
And Millennium Partners would agree to hiring large numbers of Boston residents, minorities and women to work on the project in addition to the base purchase price, proponents say.
City Councilor Bill Linehan, who supports the idea, says he still can't believe Millennium proposed paying the city so much money - some %50 million more than other bidders for the parcel. "This is the best deal for Boston," he said.
Opponents, who include the Friends of the Public Garden and the Boston Preservation Alliance, said that the shade from the building would only make conditions on the Common, where some trees and grass are already ailing due to insufficient sunlight, worse. Councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson accused the BPDA and the current administration of selling out the city's future, by setting a precedent for spot zoning that would let other developers with a lot of cash sprinkle it around and get whatever they want.
Other councilors who raised questions - Michelle Wu and Josh Zakim - said they were also troubled by the precedent and the either/or scenario the mayor was painting - that they have to approve this deal or else the city gets nothing from the site, even though five other developers also submitted proposals.
At a long and crowded hearing, supporters, opponents and councilors with questions alternated in discussing the proposal.
City Parks Commissioner Chris Cook said the $56 million that would be split between the Common and Franklin Park would let the city do badly needed repairs and renovations to both parks, to such an extent that any minimal shadow issues on the Common would be more than made up through plants and fields made healthier through better care.
He said Franklin Park has not seen such an investment since the city assembled the land for it in the 19th century.
And he said the city could use the money to leverage even more investments in the 500-acre park by philanthropists. In the past, he said, nobody's wanted to pay for anything at Franklin Park because it was so obvious the city couldn't afford to maintain whatever they paid for.
BHA Administrator Bill McGonagle painted a dire picture: Without the money from the sale of the garage, and in an era when the federal government is stopping investments in public housing, already dilapidated apartments at Old Colony and Orient Heights will continue to fall apart and will eventually have to be shut altogether.
But Deb Howe, a landscape architect for the Friends of the Public Garden - which also oversees the Common and the Commmonwealth Avenue Mall - said that one part of the Common, by Boylston and Tremont, is already in so much shade that cherry trees recently had to be pulled out and the grass is in bad shape because it doesn't get enough sun.
Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said he found it "honestly shocking" that the BPDA says it would only do a comprehensive study of land use downtown if the bill passes, because that's just the sort of thing it should be doing anyway, what with "Planning" being in its name and all. And he said the proposal sets a bad precedent on a slippery slope - in the future, what if a developer proposes a billion-dollar complex right on the Common? How could the city resist the lure?
"The city is being blinded by a pot of gold," he said. "As in fairy tales chasing it always leads to bad consequences. Don't be taken in."
Jackson objected to the "false sense of urgency" created by the BPDA to get the council to pass a formal request to the state legislaure for a change in the shadow law. "We are selling our soul to the highest bidder and that is absolutely unacceptable."
BPDA Executive Director Brian Golden said the authority would never do that, that he opposes adding more shadows to city parks and that the only reason he supports the Millennium Proposal and what he said was a minimal, brief shadow in the morning, was because of how much money the project will mean for residents across the city. He said there are no other parcels owned by the city or the BPDA downtown where that could happen again.
John Larkin, a principal at Millennium Partners, said the project would be fundamentally different from the company's other Boston buildings - such as the Millenium Tower where Filene's used to be - because the company realizes it has to spread the wealth around the entire city.
"You can't have a healthy downtown without a healthy Roxbury, I really believe that," he said, adding the reason Millennium was willing to pay so much more for the garage than other developers was because "we are really bullish on the city of Boston."
He urged councilors to think of the $153 million as just the start of an engine that would also mean more than $12 million in annual tax payments, nearly 3,000 construction jobs and 2,700 permanent jobs. In total, he said, the building could mean $600 million to $700 million in additional "multiplier" revenue for the city and its residents.
Under questioning from Jackson, Larkin acknowledged the company missed its minority, women and Boston-resident hiring goals for Millennium Tower. While the company would face no penalties from the city for missing its pledged goals of ensuring at least 51% of construction jobs went to Boston residents - and 50% to people of color and 50% to women - Larkin insisted the company is already taking steps to meet those numbers.
Larkin said Millennium would be willing to relax CORI checks for otherwise qualified workers - and to add penalties of its own to agreements with subcontractors to ensure they hire locally and among people who don't traditionally get hired in Boston.
Councilors Andrea Campbell and Ayanna Pressley raised "equity" issues as well, especially given the city's history of seeming to give priority to issues downtown.
Under questioning from Zakim, Larkin said the company could not really shorten its proposed building much, even if the city agreed to give up some of the payment for the garage in exchange. He said this is because the bulk of the building's expenses comes in the basic infrastructure in the lower floors of the structure - removing several floors from the top would force the company to raise rents and condo prices to possibly unmarketable levels.
In addition to BPDA approval, the tower will also need approval from the FAA, which takes a dim view of really tall structures just across the harbor from Logan Airport. In fact, Golden used that fact to show the building is already somewhat of a compromise - because Tom Menino's original concept, a decade ago, was for a 1,000-foot skyscraper.