Commercial Interests

Throwing Shade

Old South Church Holds Development Hostage With $19M Ransom

Old South Church wants $19M from Boston Properties

Apparently, the price of sunlight is going up in Boston. Way up.

Back in 1999, the Old South Meeting House in Downtown Crossing hammered out a roughly $1 million settlement with a developer planning to build a 33-story office tower next door, citing the shadows it would cast.

Fast forward to 2017. Old South Church off Copley Square now wants $19 million – a few million for repairs and another $15 million for affordable housing programs of its choosing – as compensation for a new tower planned a very long two blocks away above Back Bay Station.

Churches and nonprofits as well as neighborhood activists and projects opponents have played the shadow game for years, sometimes forcing developers to cough up a few extra hundred thousand or even fatally delaying some proposals. But Old South Church’s proposal definitely raises the stakes. Highway robbery is highway robbery, even if it’s a church that’s doing the stickup.

I have covered development in Boston for years, but I have to admit I am not a shadow expert. Even so, Old South Church’s number seems picked out of sky above where Boston Properties hopes its new, 365-foot Back Bay tower will dwell.

Scott Van Voorhis

Scott Van Voorhis

Just compare the $19 million Old South Church is seeking from Boston Properties for its tower, which would be a third of a mile away, to the $1 million Old South Meeting House and Chinatown activists wrung from the developer of the 33 Arch Street tower, separated by just a few hundred feet on the other side of a city block.

Altogether the community benefits package, which City Hall negotiated with the tower developer nearly two decades ago on behalf of Old South Meeting House and Chinatown groups, included $750,000 for capital improvements, renovations and educational programming. (That was in addition to more than $3 million in payments for affordable housing, job training and day care.)

The executive director of the meeting house, the scene of more than a few assemblies of rebellious colonists in the leadup to the American Revolution, estimated at the time that 33 Arch St. would cast its shadow over the building during the height of the day for nine months of the year. By contrast, the heaviest shadows on Old South Church off Copley Square would be in the mornings in December, from a pair of relatively modest office and apartment towers, the highest reaching 365 feet.

A more recent example can be found with Millennium Partners’ plans for a 700-foot office and residential tower in Winthrop Square. Millennium agreed to shell out $125,000 a year for the next 40 years to the Friends of the Boston Public Garden after criticism of the shadows its new tower would cast on the Common. No question that’s a lot of money, but $5 million over 40 years is a lot different from the $19 million Old South Church is demanding.

Fundamental Misunderstandings

To be fair, the motive behind Old South’s demands is noble, even if it’s clearly a rob-the-rich-to-help-the-poor scheme. The church is seeking far more money for affordable housing in Boston than cash for the additional maintenance it claims will be necessary due to the shadows Boston Properties new tower complex will cast.

But the church’s senior minister, in a letter to Boston Properties, reveals some fundamental misunderstandings about the economics of development and the housing market in general.

The misconceptions are hardly unique to the clergy of Old South Church, but are common to a mainstream Protestantism that, once accused of being too close to the country club set, now sees capitalism through a dated, 1960s-era ideology as an evil to be battled, not as force to be harnessed.

In the letter, Rev. Nancy Taylor calls upon Boston Properties to either agree to agree to fork over $19 million or shave that 365 high-rise down to something closer to 200 feet. Anticipating Boston Properties’ objections, Taylor challenges the developer to open its books to prove that its demands will make the project unfeasible.

But it’s hard to see how either demand would be anything but a deal killer for the developer.

Boston Properties has already committed millions to rehab dingy Back Bay Station, in addition to the $26 million it will spend to meet Boston’s affordable housing requirements.

It’s hard to see how the project works if the tallest and most profitable building is cut in half or, failing that, Boston Properties is forced to pay out an additional $19 million for affordable housing and repairs to Old South.

“Old South Church and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO, of which Old South is a dues paying member), are officially joined in a campaign to secure an agreement with Boston Properties that will protect both our church and our community,” Taylor writes.

“Old South Church is prepared to trade what we will lose in aesthetics for $15 million in justice and kindness,” she declares.

Great rhetoric, but it implies there is something cold or cruel about what Boston Properties wants to do – which frankly isn’t the case. What’s wrong with a developer helping to meet market demand for offices and especially for housing in a city starved for new apartments, condominiums and homes? A developer that will, by the way, hopefully transform what has been for years a grim and ugly train station into an attractive public space – not to mention the dozens of new affordable apartments that are part of the plan.

And cutting the leading tower in half – one of the church’s demands – would likely lead to fewer apartments and fewer places for people to live in a city where shelter is in very high demand.

This leads to the second and even greater misconception on part of Old South’s minister, that new projects like Boston Properties’ proposed office/apartment towers are part of a trend that is driving middle- and working-class people out of the city.

“More and more our members are priced out of Boston by new initiatives like Back Bay/South End Gateway Project. They have and are moving to towns like Billerica, Reading, Lawrence, Pepperell and Brockton,” Taylor writes.

Yes, Boston has seen a surge in luxury condo and apartment development over the past few years. But more luxury units are not the reason middle-class families are moving out of the city.

Rather, the culprit is a long-term shortage of housing that built up over the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, when few new apartment and condo developments were built in Boston. The new construction that has taken shape over the last two decades has helped satisfy some of that pent-up demand, and there’s some evidence that it is moderating or even bringing down rents in older units in other parts of the city.

There’s no doubt that more middle-class housing – as well as subsidized units for working-class and low-income families – is needed. But you won’t ever get there heaping outlandish demands on developers who are already playing ball.

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Throwing Shade

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 5 min