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06.03.2009
Arches Away
Boston tower plan runs afowl of colonial founders
KPF's proposed Boston Arch towers would become one of the tallest buildings in the city, forever altering the skyline.
All images courtesy KPF

Thanks to his outsized personality, Don Chiofaro is considered Boston’s version of Donald Trump. In an oft-repeated story, the developer once arrived to a public meeting dressed in his bloodied Harvard football jersey—he was once an all-star linebacker—to show how tough he was.

His latest project is true to form. Known as the Boston Arch because of the architectural feature that bridges the Kohn Pedersen Fox–designed office and residential towers, the proposed mixed-use complex, filed with the city on April 15, would rival the Prudential Center in height and, at 26 FAR, would become the densest development in the city.


Residents of Pei Cobb Freed's harbor Towers (at left) are leading the fight against the towers. The aquarium can be seen in the foreground.

 
 

Chiofaro has already faced stiff criticism from neighbors and advocacy groups over the 770-foot-high, 1.5 million-square-foot project, but his greatest challenge may come from the very founders of the commonwealth. Though technically codified in 1886, Chapter 91 of the Massachusetts General Law dates back to the earliest laws created by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640s. It requires that public access to the waterfront be maintained and amphibious habitats preserved, meaning that 50 percent of Chiofaro’s project must be dedicated to open space, and will also be subject to stringent air, light, and water-quality standards. This is in addition to city zoning ordinances that limit the building’s height to 155 feet and 4 FAR.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) is often more than happy to negotiate with developers in exchange for reasonable public benefits. Chapter 91, however, is subject to tough review at the state capital. As a result, more than a few projects have been seriously compromised by the measure, while others have been stopped cold. “To build something on the scale Chiofaro is proposing, the rules would have to be broken,” said Yanni Tsipis, senior vice president at Collier, Meredith & Grew, a real estate consultancy representing the tenants of the neighboring Pei Cobb Freed–designed Harbor Towers who oppose the project.

Viviene Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Alliance, believes Chiofaro will eventually build on the site, although it could take years and considerable concessions. “He’s a very astute developer with a known track record,” she said. “But it’s early in the process. There will be much give and take, and much analysis remains to be done.” Li said her group has not yet taken a formal position on the project.

Then again, this is how most real estate deals get done: propose the most extreme possible project, and work down from there. Chiofaro said he had toiled for months on getting the project just right, revising its scale, composition, and components. “The geometry of the buildings begins to be set specifically by what goes inside of them and what we’re trying to achieve on the ground,” Chiofaro told AN.
 

 

Seen from the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the new project is meant to serve as a link to the waterfront.

The site lies between the new Rose Kennedy Greenway and the waterfront and is occupied by a garage built as part of the Harbor Towers project. Chiofaro intended to simply build atop the garage, but when he began negotiating with the BRA, they suggested he tear it down and start from scratch, which is how the new towers evolved. Importantly, it is seen as a means to create a new access point for the waterfront, and particularly to the aquarium beyond.

As a result, a promenade was planned—Chiofaro likens it to the Galleria in Milan—that will bisect two major towers, one at 40 stories for offices, the other at 59 stories for a hotel and luxury residences. “It’s the floorplates of these types that really begin to define the buildings,” Chiofaro noted. The only problem was that against the skyline, the two towers looked somewhat muddled, which is how the arch was conceived. “Not only does it create an icon, a real gateway,” said Andrew Klare, an associate principal at KPF, “but with that addition, it actually makes the scale break down.”

The one problem is that the added height may create problems for nearby Logan airport. The Federal Aviation Administration has already warned that the building could impede approaching planes, but the developer insists such concerns are all part of the negotiations—which are very much just beginning. “We’ll see what gets built,” Li said. “To say your project is green or will create jobs is not enough. It’s seeking some strong variances, which is not to say nothing would get built there. They just have to provide significant public benefits.”

Matt Chaban