There has been a law on the books in Massachusetts since 1990 restricting the construction of tall buildings that would cast what some might view as unsightly shadows over the Boston Common and Public Garden.  With no open space remaining for ground up construction in downtown Boston, developers are looking build a 775 foot residential tower that undoubtedly would cast a shadow over the Common and Public Garden in violation of that law; and are thus seeking to change the law.  On June 27, 2017, Massachusetts legislators delayed a vote to waive the law. William Galvin, incumbent  Massachusetts Secretary of State, asked lawmakers to delay their vote by two weeks so that his office can study the legislation. Secretary Galvin also oversees the Massachusetts Historic Commission.

The proposed 775-foot tower was named by the developer Winthrop Square. According to the Friends of the Public Garden, a park nonprofit advocacy group,  the tower, if built would violate the existing shadow laws for 264 days of the year on the Boston Common and 120 days on the Public Garden.

In response to the construction boom of the early 1990’s two laws were enacted to protect Boston’s public parks from shadowing. The first law, the Boston Common Shadow Law restricts new shadows on the Boston Common to the first after sunrise or 7:00 AM (whichever is later) or the last hour before sunset. There are different exemptions for the buildings in the Midtown Cultural District which lie east and south of the Common and Garden. The Midtown Cultural District is the geographical area next to the Boston Common and the Public Garden from Arlington to School Streets and generally defined by Boylston, Tremont and Washington Streets.  For buildings in the Midtown Cultural District, new shadows are allowed for no more than two hours between the hours of 8:00 AM and 2:30 PM from March 21st until October 21st. Any new shadow lasting two hours or more during this time slot is not allowed, but the law allows for the Boston Planning and Development Agency (“BPDA”) to grant exemptions. This law also establishes limits for the South Station Economic Development District.

The second law enacted, the Public Garden Shadow Law restricts new shadows Public Garden to the first hour after sunrise or 7:00 AM (whichever is later) or the last hour before sunset. For buildings in the Midtown Cultural District, new shadows are allowed before 10:00 AM during the period March 21 until October 21.

In the early Spring of 2017, the Developer of the project, Millennium Partners struck a provisional agreement with the City of Boston to allow the developer to build the tower on the site of a parking garage which is currently owned by the city. The legislation is the result of a petition drafted by Mayor Marty Walsh and approved by the City Council in April of 2017. Although the petition reveals that the City of Boston would collect $12 million in annual tax payments from the Winthrop Square tower, the petition outlines several efforts by the City of Boston to preserve the shadow laws throughout the city. The petition codifies a new shadow protection on Copley Square Park with regard to development in the Stuart Street District and requires “that the BPDA conduct a planning initiative for downtown Boston, including but not limited to the Midtown Cultural District, the Financial District, and to define a transparent and predictable future for the area, including recommendations regarding sunlight…” The funds from the project will also assist in building new affordable housing units in Chinatown and public space improvements. The petition states that the project holistically will be “an economic driver for the entire city”.  The petition also “ensures economic inclusion” which was memorialized in a Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the developer, Millennium Partners with regards to construction and professional service contracts with women and minority owned businesses, partnering with the City of Boston’s Summer Job’s Program which promotes minorities working in the trades and the requirement of hiring a construction workforce of 51 percent City of Boston residents, 40 percent persons of color, and 12 percent women.

Image: NBBJ

The shadow cast over Boston’s building boom may pave the way for architects to explore new concepts when designing skyscrapers for future development projects. For example, a London based architectural firm (NBBJ) has designed a skyscraper that does not block out the sun at the ground level. This new design was an idea developed for the architecture think tank New London Architecture.