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On a sun-drenched morning, Vicki Smith strolls past the lines at a sprawling farmer’s market in Copley Square and looks toward the horizon. She sees the future: up to five new buildings rising just beyond Copley Square. One of them could reach 500 feet.
“Because it’s so close it would cast huge shadows on this part of Copley Square, on Trinity Square and the Boston Public Library,” explained Smith, the president of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay.
Along with shadows, she says the new buildings will create more wind and mean more congestion in the city.
"With all these projects, nothing new is created that makes it more liveable," said Smith. "There are no new parks. The streets aren't getting wider. We're not increasing public transportation."
“With all of these projects, nothing new is created that makes it more live-able. There are no new parks. The streets aren’t getting wider. We’re not increasing public transportation.”
And then there’s what she calls 'the canyon effect.' Tall and glassy, the city’s newest skyscraper -- the 60-story Millennium Tower -- is a mile away, but clearly visible on a walk down Newbury Street toward the Public Garden.
“Before this was open space,” said Smith. “Suddenly, it's blocked in. It changes the view.”
Construction is underway, or about to be, on at least a half dozen buildings that will rival the height of Millennium Tower, including a new Four Seasons Hotel near the Christian Science Center and a tower planned near Post Office Square. Skyscrapers are also in the works at North Station, South Station and Government Center.
“It’s a lot to absorb in a relatively short amount of time,” said Greg Galer of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “It will change the look of the city.”
Galer says his organization welcomes high rise construction if the city’s history remains intact. He says the Millennium Tower developers struck that balance. They built a skyscraper and restored the century-old building that once housed Filene’s department store in the Downtown Crossing neighborhood.
Yet the break-neck pace of development makes preservation a challenge.
"The next thing you know, you pause for a minute and look back, and what happened? Where did our historic city go?" said Galer. "That's our fear. That in this exuberance, we'll lose the sense of what makes Boston unique."
“The next thing you know, you pause for a minute and look back and what happened? Where did our historic city go? That’s our fear. That in this exuberance, we’ll lose the sense of what makes Boston unique.”
The changing skyline may also reflect a changed reality: a city defined less by its history and more by its future.
“Boston is a super high-value city,” said George Thrush, a professor of architecture at Northeastern University. “Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, these are the absolute economic dynamos of the United States.”
Thrush says the thriving economy is attracting new people with new priorities.
"There are people from all over the world living here, there's been a dramatic demographic change," said Thrush. "They all work in modern industries [and] are much more comfortable with technology, with tall buildings, with all things new."