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Objections rise over tower plan

Neighbors say 47-floor residential building would clog traffic, darken Copley Square

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / November 11, 2011

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A proposal to build Boston’s tallest residential building in the Back Bay is generating objections from neighbors and public officials, who argue the project would worsen traffic problems, darken Copley Square with shadows, and skimp on public art and affordable housing.

Several groups have written to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in recent days to say those issues must be addressed before Simon Property Group can move forward with its plan for a 47-story tower at Copley Place.

The developer, headquartered in Indianapolis, responded to some of the concerns late yesterday.

Simon told the BRA that it will double, to 10, the number of affordable units in the $500 million tower. It is also negotiating the purchase of a building in the South End where it will create another 35 affordable units, to comply with city regulations.

It also agreed to increase to $1 million its contribution for public art in the neighborhood, as long as it is allowed to help select the art.

Still, Democratic state Representative Byron Rushing, whose district includes the construction site, said Simon would meet only the city’s minimum requirements on affordable housing. He said Simon should build affordable units equaling 25 percent of the total project, instead of the 15 percent minimum.

“This is a big project by a big firm . . . and they are going to come in and try to do this as cheaply as possible,’’ Rushing said. “The BRA shouldn’t be part of that. They should be on the community’s side, asking for more.’’

The continued objections threaten to derail Simon’s plan to begin construction next spring on the last big part of the Copley Place development.

A multi-tiered glass tower, designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects of Boston, would contain 318 condominiums, space for an expanded Neiman Marcus store, and additional restaurants and shops.

It would be among the largest new buildings in the city in recent decades and would provide hundreds of jobs for construction workers hit hard by the economic downturn.

The BRA’s director, Peter Meade, said the authority is reviewing the proposal and has not decided whether to schedule it for a vote at its next board meeting, on Nov. 17. Meade said the BRA has pushed the developer for affordable housing as well for improvements in public spaces.

“There is no question that we are doing what we can in terms of making sure this developer lives up to its responsibilities, and that includes the affordable housing part of it,’’ Meade said. He added that Simon has promised to spend large sums to upgrade parks and build an indoor public garden.

“I think at the end of the day most reasonable people will see that this developer will be making a significant contribution to many of the parks and projects around that area,’’ Meade said.

Jack Hobbs, an executive with Simon’s project manager, Collaborative Partners of Boston, said the developer will continue to work with the neighbors. But he added that Simon needs to know its project can move forward before it commits to resolving smaller details, such as in park designs.

“You can only go so far spending time and money addressing these issues before you even know you have a project,’’ Hobbs said. “We expect that everyone will come together and agree on the proper solutions, but that’s not going to happen overnight; it’s going to happen during a design process that will take many months.’’

He also said financial constraints limit how many affordable units Simon can include in the project.

But some neighbors worry that Simon will be less motivated to respond to the community once it receives BRA approval.

Typically, the authority grants approval for the broad outlines of a project, then irons out design details over a period of months.

Rushing said the BRA should withhold all approvals until Simon files additional documents showing the number of affordable housing units it will build, as well as how it will handle wind, shadows, and increased traffic at the busy intersection of Dartmouth and Stuart streets.

Those and other concerns were outlined in a letter sent to the BRA by Rushing, Democratic state Representative Martha Walz of Boston, and other community leaders.

In addition, the Boston Parks and Recreation Department wrote last month that the project would harm Copley Square by casting shadows across the park during the middle of the day in fall and winter. The parks department noted that the square is already affected by shadows from several other buildings.

“Adding two more hours of shadow to this space . . . when days are shorter and cooler is a significant negative impact that will make the park less hospitable,’’ said a letter from Liza Meyer, chief landscape architect for the parks department.

Hobbs did not contest that new shadows would be cast on the park but said they would be within the city’s guidelines.

“We’ve been under all the BRA thresholds,’’ he said. “You cannot build a building without some impact. There needs to be a sense of what’s reasonable.’’

The citizens committee reviewing the project asked Simon to make a $20,000 annual contribution to a group that maintains Copley Square “as a mitigating measure for the new shadows.’’ The committee also requested a $20,000 annual contribution for maintenance of the nearby Southwest Corridor Park.

Simon is already committed to redesigning the entryway of the Southwest Corridor Park and has offered a one-time $250,000 payment for maintenance. It is offering a $200,000 payment for Copley Square.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.