BOSTON-The Columbus Center project, the 950,000-sf mixed-use development that will rise above the Massachusetts Turnpike, received city approval. It is the city’s first project to be built using air rights and courted controversy at every step, requiring over two and a half years of public processes to get to this point.

“This was more than I ever anticipated,” Roger Cassin, who is developing the project with Arthur Winn tells “But how sweet it is to conclude the process with a unanimous vote.”

The project underwent numerous revisions to satisfy environmental activists and local residents who worried that that the height and density of the project would create wind tunnels, traffic jams and shadows among other issues. Most recently, the developers agreed to shave three stories off one of the residential buildings and increased the number of affordable units from 10% to 15%. Cassin says that those last changes, suggested by city Mayor Thomas M. Menino, were “good” ones and the best way to “satisfy everyone out there.”

The developers received approval from the Boston Redevelopment Authority’ board, ending what they call “the Article 80-like” process, because it was similar to the city’s Article 80 approval process for large projects. Within the last 10 days, the development team received their MEPA Certificate from the state and the endorsement of the Boston Civic Design Commission.

The project now involves 950,000 sf of mixed-use development spanning seven acres and four open parcels above the Massachusetts Turnpike extension, currently dividing the Back Bay, Bay Village and South End neighborhoods. It will consist of 500 housing units–including 50 affordable units on-site; 37,000 sf of new open space; a 200-room upscale hotel; 50,000 sf of retail, including a health club, neighborhood grocery, daycare, sidewalk cafe and storefront commercial space subsidized by the developers to “spark local small business development.”

The only thorn in this rosy story is the city’s contention that it should have jurisdiction over projects built above the turnpike. The legislation dealing with air rights parcels grants zoning exemptions to projects built above the turnpike and the Memorandum of Understanding memorializes that exemption. Cassin and Winn received city approval relying on this exemption but there is a chance that organizations like the Conservation Law Foundation could go after the zoning exemption in court.

Cassin says that while he is waiting to see what happens regarding the city and the Turnpike Authority, he is nevertheless moving forward on Columbus Center.

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