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Paul McMorrow

Casting a shadow on Back Bay’s future

By Paul McMorrow
April 1, 2011

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THE BACK BAY as we know it exists only because of what’s behind it — Boston’s High Spine. The ridge of towers from Mass. Ave. to downtown represented a grand deal that saved the old brick neighborhood. It’s a case of historic preservation through targeted density. Now a group of lawmakers wants to walk away from the 50-year-old compromise that preserved the neighborhood from over-development — and in the process, threaten growth throughout wide swaths of the city.

At the height of urban renewal, city planners made a decision that shaped the Back Bay’s future and enabled its revival. Its brownstones had been chopped up into boarding houses that were falling into disrepair. The streets had a decidedly seedy feel to them. The neighborhood needed a serious injection of capital.

John Collins, the mayor who oversaw the razing of Scollay Square, had one idea about how to reverse the Back Bay’s downward slump. Collins wanted to line the lower half of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall with eight high-rise apartment towers, two each at Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, and Dartmouth Streets. Six buildings would reach 200 feet in height — more than three times the neighborhood’s current 65-foot zoning limit. The Arlington towers would soar 285 feet over the Public Garden. Any one of them would have destroyed Boston’s answer to Paris.

A group of local architects had a better idea. They proposed the High Spine as a way of revitalizing the Back Bay without disrupting the brownstones. Tall development went to the Back Bay’s margins. Density had a proper place to take root, and it created economic activity without disrupting the old neighborhood’s charming scale. The Prudential building was followed by the Hancock and the Christian Science Center tower, and then by Prudential Center apartments and office buildings along Boylston Street, and then by new arrivals like 111 Huntington and Robert A.M. Stern’s Clarendon condo tower.

Planned towers at the Christian Science complex, new office and apartment structures at the Pru, new dormitories at Berklee College of Music, and a proposed 47-story condo tower atop Copley Place would all follow the logic of the High Spine — cities need properly placed density to grow. That proper place isn’t along the middle of Commonwealth Avenue, as Collins proposed, but it’s somewhere nearby.

A bill in the State House would cast all this aside. Two years ago, Representative Marty Walz proposed that the state outlaw construction projects that cast any new shadows on the Greenway, Copley Square, the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, the Back Bay Fens, the Esplanade, and Christopher Columbus Park. The prime target then was the 47-story Copley tower, which has since been sidelined by the real estate crash.

The bill was buried in committee last time around. It appears that hint wasn’t strong enough. With Berklee pushing plans for a tall dorm on Boylston, and rumblings growing louder about a new round of bidding for the Turnpike parcels across the street, Walz’s bill is back.

The shadow bill is a dangerous legislation on many levels. It puts Beacon Hill in charge of municipal development matters. It arbitrarily threatens new construction across wide swaths of the city. Its inflexible language — no new shadows, ever — is divorced from the way people actually encounter the built environment. (An hour and a half of morning shadow in the dead of winter — the Berklee dorm’s great crime — is the least of anyone’s worries.)

Most of all, it trashes 50 years of compromise on the High Spine. Back Bay real estate is astronomically expensive precisely because gleaming towers are allowed to coexist with low-slung brownstones. They feed off one another. Walz’s bill ends that relationship.

It’s notable that the Greenway, which was covered by Walz’s bill last year, has dropped from the bill’s current incarnation. After all, Boston’s newest park system was just put through the paces by a much-heralded mayoral study of new development and shadows.

The thing is, the Greenway shadow study wasn’t really about shadows. It looked at scale and context. It tried to preclude development where it would overwhelm neighboring structures, but it also encouraged building wherever it could. It was the result of careful planning and compromise — just the sort of exercise Walz’s bill would preclude.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.