A BPDA planner presents at the January 30 PLAN: Downtown Scenarios Workshop.

How do you envision downtown Boston thirty years from now? This was the central question addressed at a recent workshop hosted by the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA). Dozens of city planners and representatives from Boston’s residential, commercial, and nonprofit communities gathered at Suffolk University on January 30 to discuss options for future development downtown generated by the BPDA’s PLAN: Downtown study, now in its second year. The different scenarios could have far-reaching impacts on the future of preservation in Boston.

Launched in May 2018, PLAN: Downtown is an ambitious effort to “develop a new framework for the preservation, enhancement, and growth of Downtown Boston as a place for all, balancing livability, daylight, walkability, climate change preparedness, access to open space, affordability, and a dynamic mix of uses.” After extensive research and public outreach, the BPDA created two development scenarios for a section of downtown stretching from City Hall Plaza through Chinatown to the Mass Pike (see map). Both options would amend current regulations governing building height, including zoning restrictions on height and floor-area ratio, shadow regulations limiting shade on the Common, and FAA regulations imposing maximum height limits near flightpaths. Under both options, developers who wish to increase density would contribute to a public benefit fund that help to finance a variety of projects, such as affordable housing, climate resiliency, and public realm improvements. There, however, the similarities end.

Map of the PLAN: Downtown study area. BPDA.

Scenario 1, termed Growth-Based Density Bonus System, would create conditions for a significant increase in density and building height downtown. Whereas current zoning makes room for varying baseline heights, Scenario 1 would establish a uniform baseline height of 155 feet and permit maximum heights in line with existing shadow and FAA regulations across the entire study region. The new zoning would permit buildings of up to 800 feet in certain locations, and for a dramatic increase in density in general, which could direct more money into the public benefit fund. Scenario 1 would possibly lead to greater development in areas with a large number of historic buildings that lack official designation.

By contrast, Scenario 2 – the Preservation & Growth-Balanced Density Bonus System – would vary density throughout the downtown by establishing Character Preservation Areas with lower baseline and maximum heights. For example, Chinatown and the Wharf District would be assigned a baseline height of 100 feet; the Wharf District, 125 feet. The maximum heights permitted in these three Character Preservation Areas would be much lower than those of surrounding downtown areas, which would conform to existing shadow and FAA regulations. Under this scenario, the highest buildings constructed downtown would be capped at 700 feet. Development within the Character Preservation Areas would be limited and potentially more in line with their historic and architectural context.

Scenarios 1 and 2 in comparison. BPDA.

AHF joins the Boston Preservation Alliance in support for Scenario 2. While we recognize the complexity of balancing development and preservation in a city with little room for geographical expansion, we are keenly aware of what can be lost through exuberant growth. AHF was founded as a result of the ill-advised urban renewal movement of the 1960s, which razed the historic West End in the name of progress. A similar scenario is unlikely to play out as rapidly or thoroughly today in historic neighborhoods such as Chinatown. However, the gradual erosion of downtown Boston’s cultural and architectural heritage is a real possibility without a thoughtful approach to development that brings all stakeholders to the table – an approach the BPDA has thus far taken and, we hope, will continue pursue as PLAN: Downtown unfolds.

Considering that PLAN: Downtown’s stated goals include climate preparedness, environmental concerns offer another reason to prioritize preservation downtown. Rehabbed buildings are often greener than new construction; not only does avoiding demolition reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, but buildings erected prior to the invention of modern HVAC systems tend to be more energy-efficient than later structures. If Boston is to accomplish its stated goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, purposefully integrating preservation and adaptive reuse into a future development strategy is a logical step.

It is undeniable that Boston must accommodate a burgeoning population. Whether this necessary growth must occur at the expense of the historically and architecturally eclectic streetscape that makes the city unique is a question that AHF answers with a resounding “no.” We call upon the BPDA to adopt Scenario 2 as the starting point for planning a thriving future Boston where the past remains a tangible presence downtown.

For more information on PLAN: Downtown, visit http://www.bostonplans.org/planning/planning-initiatives/plan-downtown.

The January 30 presentation can be viewed at http://www.bostonplans.org/getattachment/8ce2b8bc-7bb2-4748-a6e7-244dbb3a83d8.

Send comments to Kennen Rhyne at the BPDA – kennan.rhyne@boston.gov.