Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin on Tuesday threw a curve ball into the Winthrop Square Garage skyscraper development process, testifying to a committee of state legislators that his office would like a two-week hold on the home-rule petition that would allow a tall tower at the garage site in exchange for changing state law governing shadows.
As Secretary of the Commonwealth, Galvin is also the chair of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which is responsible for historic protection throughout the state. Galvin contends that his office did not receive word about studies on potential shadow impacts from a Winthrop Square skyscraper until late last week.
“My office was only able to obtain access to the developer’s shadow study from the city on Friday, June 23, 2017, clearly not an adequate time to make a thorough, professional review,” Galvin wrote to Sen. Michael O. Moore and Rep. James J. O’Day, chairmen of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government, in a June 27 letter. “It is worth noting that even a cursory review makes it clear that there are many approximations and disclaimers in the study. I believe we owe it to the people of Massachusetts to be diligent in seeking an independent review of these important questions.”
O’Day said after the meeting the committee would honor Galvin’s two-week hold request.
Galvin’s remarks on Tuesday caught city officials by surprise.
“It surprised me and everybody else at City Hall that at the 11th hour, we’re hearing these concerns from the Secretary of State’s office,” Boston Planning & Development Director Brian Golden said in an interview after the committee hearing, continuing to say that Galvin’s comments “revealed a surprising lack of understanding of the process to date.”
The city jumpstarted efforts to bring a tower to the Winthrop Square site in February 2015, and the BPDA has had three animated videos showing potential shadow impacts of Millennium Partners’ proposed skyscraper posted on its website since mid-December and early January.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh this spring proposed a home-rule petition that proposed altering state shadow law in exchange for an anticipated $153 million payout from Millennium Partners. Those funds have been earmarked for improvements to the Boston Common, Franklin Park, the Emerald Necklace and refurbishing public housing in South Boston and East Boston.
The shadow debate was perhaps most thoroughly discussed in a six-plus hour Boston City Council hearing on the home-rule petition in April. The City Council approved that home-rule petition on April 26, after which Walsh signed it and sent the document to the state Legislature.
Galvin said the rapidity with which the petition became a “legislative finality” was quicker than expected, and did not give his Mass. Historical Commission team time to adequately review shadow studies.
“There was about a week’s notice on the hearing, which is pretty fast by legislative standards,” Galvin said in an interview after the committee meeting. “We were not trying to prevent the hearing, but we wanted it understood that there was not going to be any legislative action until we had our opportunity to talk to the city on the shadow study.”
Galvin said he’s concerned that the exact height of the building is as yet unknown, a concern that was echoed throughout testimony at the State House hearing on Tuesday. Golden testified that the height of Millennium Partners’ proposed tower would likely range between 710 to 775 feet.
“You can’t even get to the justification of the why you would do this until you understand what it is that it would do,” Galvin said. “That’s why I asked for the delay.”
The request for a two-week delay did not stop a broad coalition from expressing its support for the tower on Tuesday. Joe Larkin, principal with Millennium Partners, brought a cadre of diversified interests to the table when speaking in favor of the home-rule petition, including Samuel B. Hogan Sr., a bishop of First Jurisdiction Massachusetts, Church of God in Christ; Andy Hoar, president of CBRE New England, and Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp. in Chinatown.
Speaking in opposition to the home-rule petition was Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, who said it set a bad precedent for development in the city down the line.
Both Larkin, at Millennium, and Golden, with the BPDA, said their groups would be happy to share any information with Galvin's office.
Golden said the last time the BPDA had had communication with the Massachusetts Historical Commission was in December, when state historic preservation officer Brona Simon filed a letter requesting, among other topics, that “shadow studies, overlaid on a historic resources map, which illustrates the current and new shadows from the proposed tower” be provided to the MHC.
From then, the BPDA had not heard from the MHC until last week, Golden said.
“If they wanted information weeks ago, we’d have given them what we had,” Golden said. “This is fundamentally surprising. The legislation was not a secret.”
Galvin said that the burden of reaching out to MHC rested on the city’s and developer’s shoulders.
“We reached out to them, and the responses we got were less than satisfactory — only at the 11th hour to give us access to the shadow study,” Galvin said. “This is not a case where the city is sitting back and being a diligent steward of the law. The city is a partner in this deal. This sort of ‘surprise,’ it’s a joke. It’s a joke.”
Golden said the BPDA would continue to work with Galvin’s office throughout the MEPA and Article 80, the city’s development-review process for large-scale construction projects. Those processes are handled separately from the effort to amend the state shadow law, Golden said.
Galvin said his next step is to review the shadow study he’s been given.
“If there are additional studies they want us to review, they should get those to us as quickly as possible,” Galvin said. “When the city wants something they haven’t hesitated to call me. My number has not changed.”