SCOTT VAN VOORHIS
If you believe Mayor Thomas M. Menino calls all the development shots in Boston, think again.
When it comes to South Boston's waterfront, the Hub's long-promised new harborside neighborhood, the Federal Aviation Administration, not just City Hall, is setting the tone.
The FAA has been quietly pushing for years to limit the heights of new buildings planned for the Seaport, home to such monumental development proposals as the nearly three-million-square-foot Fan Pier project.
The federal agency regulates air travel at Logan and airports across the country. And it has been fighting to keep skyscrapers out of what is now a busy corridor for jets taking off from Logan - one that happens to be directly across the harbor from all that planned development.
Now, after years of lobbying, the FAA has emerged as the clear victor in the battle of the building heights.
Veteran tower developer John Hynes, as he lays out plans for a six-million-square-foot ``Seaport Square'' development just across Northern Avenue, says his buildings will top out in the 250-to-270-foot range.
With a minor exception or two, Hynes expects his project to be no taller than the planned Fan Pier buildings next door - a big shift in previous planning.
The site's former owner, Frank McCourt, who now owns the Los Angeles Dodgers, spent years talking up the idea that he would build a wall of towers that would gaze right over Fan Pier buildings onto the nearby harbor.
But Hynes acknowledged, in a recent interview that FAA height restrictions, among other factors, mean there will be no bid to build skyward over Fan Pier.
Instead, Hynes is crafting a plan that features a more human scale, comparable to the Back Bay. A school, hotels and offices are planned.
It's a change that has happened without much public debate, driven mostly by behind-the-scenes edicts by the FAA.
``They (the FAA) are not interested in having a public discussion,'' said Vivien Li, head of the Boston Harbor Association. `They don't want to be lobbied. These are technical safety considerations.''
Hynes is not the only one affected.
There's a grudging consensus among developers with plans to build on or near the waterfront that their new hotels, office and condo high-rises will have to stay below the 300-foot limit.
Waterfront developer John Drew, for example is also expected to toe the FAA's height line with his proposed Waterside Place,
Chicago's billionaire Pritzker family waged a fierce and ultimately losing battle with the FAA to boost building heights on Fan Pier. By the time the dust settled in 2002 after months of wrangling, the economy had tanked and the Pritzkers decided to sell.
As more than one Boston developer has learned, its not just City Hall you can't fight. It's the FAA as well.
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