Bill looks to limit shadows on parks

By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / February 5, 2009
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A pair of Boston lawmakers seeking to check vertical commercial growth in the Back Bay and along the Rose Kennedy Greenway have filed legislation that would outlaw new development that casts midday shadows on a half-dozen parks in the city.

Part of the impetus for the bill is a planned 47-story residential tower that would rise above Neiman Marcus at Copley Place, just steps from Copley Square, the Boston Public Library, and a couple of blocks from picturesque Commonwealth Avenue.

"The default here should be that open space should have as much sunlight as possible," said state Representative Byron Rushing, Democrat of Boston, who sponsored the bill with Representative Martha M. Walz, who represents the Back Bay and Beacon Hill.

"One of the things about having open space is not only do you get to see the sky, but also you get the sun on you," Rushing said. "We're saying there are places in Boston that, from now on, should have no more shadow in the middle of the day."

The measure caught the city by surprise. The legislation landed on Beacon Hill as the Boston Redevelopment Authority is preparing a review of its own development restrictions along the Rose Kennedy Greenway. City officials said existing development guidelines are adequate to protect parks from shadow and the issue should be left to local officials.

"Their concern is my concern about development, about casting shadows in certain locations," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. "We'll be able to deal with those issues through the planning process of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. When there are serious problems with shadows, we adjust the height of the building or factors that bring shadows onto those" parks.

But Rushing said the city has not done enough to keep parks from being covered in darkness during the day. The legislation would expand existing protections set in law that prevent the addition of shadows on Boston Common.

In addition to the Greenway, the bill would limit development that casts midday shadows on Charles River Esplanade, Christopher Columbus Park, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and Copley Square Park. It also would affect Magazine Beach Park in Cambridge.

"If this law passes, there will be additional places in Boston where people will know that, from now on, they will get as much sunlight as they get now into the future . . . until we tear some buildings down, and then we'll get some more," Rushing said.

Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, which represents business in the district, said the proposed restrictions are extensive enough to seriously limit almost any new development in broad swaths of the city.

"Without any public process, it sounds like they're trying to create a development moratorium in the city, because virtually every development casts a shadow somewhere," she said.

Mainzer-Cohen said that, if passed, development restrictions that limiting could affect the city's ability to provide new housing and could rob the state of jobs and tax revenue created by development. Those concerns, she said, should be balanced against the possibility of allowing limited shadow on the city's abundant green spaces.

Susan Elsbree, Boston Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman, said that the city includes Boston's Parks and Recreation Department in a review of new developments and that the parks commissioner must sign off on any new development within 100 feet of a park. She said the original legislation affecting development around Boston Common was passed only after extensive study in cooperation with city officials.

John C. Drake can be reached at

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