This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe's City Weekly on 5/3/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

Menino reports Waterfront deal
Shorter buildings would please FAA

By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff, 5/3/2001

Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday said he has struck a deal to reduce the heights of buildings on the South Boston Waterfront in the wake of aviation officials' concerns that tall buildings could pose dangers for planes taking off from Logan Airport.

Menino sent a letter yesterday morning asking Nicholas Pritzker, the developer of the waterfront project, to submit the revised plans to the Federal Aviation Administration.

''As far as I'm concerned, we have a project that's well on its way to reality,'' the mayor said in an interview.

Under the mayor's plan, Pritzker would cut 58 feet from the main hotel in the eight-building mini-city, sources said. Another smaller hotel would be removed entirely and housing built in its place.

Some of the office space would be recouped by converting a building planned for condominiums into offices, and by increasing the width of another building - but not infringing on open space.

The deal still appeared tenuous yesterday.

Pritzker's local development partners, Spaulding & Slye Colliers, would not speak about the deal at all. Spokeswoman Pam McDermott declined to detail the changes envisioned or the economic feasibility of the project as revised.

The FAA, however, said it was pleased.

''As Mayor Menino has aptly pointed out, this project will be a wonderful asset for the city and its people,'' said FAA spokesman Jim Peters. ''At the same time, the changes that are proposed will greatly ensure the safety of aircraft departing Runway 27 at Logan Airport.''

The waterfront project - one of the largest in recent city history - dominated city planners' time, environmentalists' scrutiny, and Menino's development agenda last year. But pilots and federal aviation officials said the proposed buildings were too high and posed a danger for planes taking off from Logan. They said that if a plane lost power in an engine on takeoff it would not be able to clear the tallest buildings.

Both the city and the Pritzker team disputed the FAA's contentions, and spent the past month trying to persuade the agency to withdraw its objections.

One source close to the talks said the Boston Redevelopment Authority had failed to understand the depth of the FAA's concerns.

''I don't think they understood the significance of it,'' the source said, noting that the talks took place at the time when former director Thomas N. O'Brien left the agency. ''I think that probably just put us, from a knowledge-based perspective, behind the curve. Now there's a little bit of pain.''

BRA officials said yesterday that an independent consultant had reviewed the plans and agreed that the buildings should be lowered. The city maintains that the initial proposal was not dangerous, but would have been costly for airlines, requiring them to limit cargo or passengers.

''I always said I would never do anything to put the airlines in hazard's way,'' said Menino. ''The FAA has concerns and might give someone concerns about safety. I would rather have heights brought down a little bit to meet conformity with what they want. I think we've done that.''

Environmentalists had challenged the plan in its earlier stages, and the Conservation Law Foundation had threatened to sue if the city permitted a project that was too dense, or loomed too large over the waterfront. The previous deal, reached late last year, provided more public open space, capped the size of the project at 3 million square feet, and limited building heights.

If the new plan honors those limits and appeases the FAA, ''then it's time to move ahead,'' said Stephanie Pollack, vice president of the foundation's Massachusetts office. ''That doesn't mean it's perfect, but there's a regulatory process that should deal with normal design issues.''

BRA director Mark Maloney said there were details left to resolve but that the additional housing would promise the Pritzkers more income to compensate for lower building heights.

The mayor said the Pritzker team would also boost the percentage to 20 percent of housing units deemed affordable to the middle class. Menino, who hopes to create a vibrant neighborhood rather than an office park, has maintained that the project must remain one-third residential.

''We've been pretty inflexible on that demand,'' Maloney said.

In recent weeks, as the talks with the FAA dragged on, some observers began to think that cutting the building heights would kill a project now facing a potential recession in the real estate economy, a scaled-back Convention Center on the waterfront, and a declining market for office space.

The mayor discussed the issue with Acting Governor Jane M. Swift several weeks ago and the two agreed on the need to move the project along, said the mayor and Swift spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman.

Mayoral candidate and Councilor at Large Peggy Davis-Mullen speculated that the BRA was reacting to outrage in the community that the city had hired a consultant to challenge the FAA's contention that building heights were dangerous.

''The constituents I've talked to thought it was very, very odd that the BRA would be funding any kind of advocate for keeping those building heights high, when it's clearly not in the interests of people flying in and out, and not in the best interests of the people on the ground either,'' she said.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2001.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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