Back Bay 'Spine' Can Handle Taller Buildings
Against the wishes of some Back Bay residents, the city's leadership seems ready to approve new guidelines that will bring new high-rise towers to the neighborhood.
Neighborhood focus of the past week was on development, again. Specifically, the Stuart Street Planning Study area and proposals to increase building height zoning along the “spine” of the Back Bay to between 150 and 400-feet (as many as 40 stories). Already approved (and under construction) is Liberty Mutual’s 22-story tower at the corners of Berkeley Street and Columbus Ave.
At a boisterous meeting held last week to discuss the plan, neighbors raised concerns over the heights of new high-rises and the effects of shadows on Copley Square and homes on nearby streets. Back Bay residents are also concerned about the continued “canyonization” of the neighborhood.
City's leadership ready to charge ahead
This much is true: some buildings already exist and some more are proposed. The city, be it the Mayor or the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), seem intent upon making this area one of high-rises, be it for offices, condos and apartments, or institutional/educational use.
Eventually, it looks as though new development is going to take place all the way to Mass Ave, the edge of the neighborhood, and beyond, to Kenmore Square and into the Fenway.
What’s driving the development
Currently, the Back Bay commercial sub-market is stronger than in downtown Boston; the office vacancy rate is lower by as much as half, according to Jones Lang LaSalle. So, there’s apparently unmet demand. By increasing supply, office prices may come down, making it affordable for other businesses to move in and expand.
This is the opposite of what many residents would prefer. Giving developers the green light for additional construction would worsen the situation. Shadows will be formed, traffic congestion will increase, quality of life will be affected. The way things are going, we will soon see the existence of “two” Back Bays - one residential and one commercial / retail / institutional.
Why development can be a good thing
As I’ve mentioned before, keeping development on the south side of Boylston seems to be a fair compromise. It allows for new construction, which benefits the city by bringing in more workers - many of whom may move to live here, and by increasing our commercial tax revenue (meaning less pressure on residential property tax rates).
Encroachment into our neighborhoods (Back Bay and South End, too) is always a legitimate fear. Having said that, I’ve always been a proponent of “reasonable” growth. Unfortunately, what I see as “reasonable” is far from the community norm. I was a supporter of the moth-balled Columbus Center project and would be a supporter of the Liberty Mutual expansion, if it hadn’t asked for (and received) special tax treatment. While some people are content with a city where “nothing changes”, others see the opportunity to grow and improve.
The Back Bay is a protected neighborhood - nothing can be built in place of existing townhomes on Commonwealth Ave or Marlborough and Beacon streets or in the South End. Thank goodness for that, but the (unintended) effect of this is, it pushes new development into tight, confined places.
What we’re seeing going on in the Stuart Street area is the result of this, for better or worse.