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Fort Point on the rise

By 0, 3/19/2006

FOR A GENERATION or longer, civic-minded Bostonians have talked about the waterfront where downtown meets South Boston as the next great development opportunity in the city. With all the Central Artery and Silver Line construction, and the fits and starts of private development, it sometimes seemed this promise would never be fulfilled.

This year, however, all the good work is coming together along the Fort Point Channel between the Congress Street and Evelyn Moakley bridges, and the first signs of public benefit are appearing farther south, all the way to the Gillette plant. These improvements, if they continue, will be one of the great legacies of the Menino administration.

The attention to the waterfront is generating enhancements for a pioneering Fort Point amenity. The Boston Children's Museum, a pathfinder when it relocated to the channel from Jamaica Plain in 1979, will break ground on a $45 million expansion early next month. It will substantially improve the public space along the south side of the Channel when it is finished in about 18 months.

Government involvement will result in substantial benefits here. Construction of the Silver Line transit prompted creation of a small park next to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge. Frank McCourt, Boston native and owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, last week donated an adjacent parcel of land to the museum for the creation of a bigger open space. What is now a parking lot will become a vibrant play space along the Harborwalk.

This new park will be improved with the help of a $500,000 donation by the developers of Russia Wharf across the channel. They hope to begin work late this year on a condominium-office project, which should be completed in late 2009. In the meantime though, they have constructed a section of Harborwalk across their property. But strollers along the waterfront have little reason to go there now because it stops abruptly at the next property line. This will change in October when the Intercontinental Hotel and Residences opens, along with an extension of the Harborwalk and two wide public lawns. The space will also be enlivened by an outdoor restaurant in warm weather.

Once this is done, the Harborwalk will be complete all around this section of the channel, opening it up for enhanced public use. What a difference from a decade ago, when the downtown side of the channel consisted of a Boston Edison substation and a hodgepodge of private buildings that walled the water off from the public use.

Farther along the channel, the federal government is renovating the plaza outside the Federal Reserve building. Across Summer Street, people who arrive at South Station find their connection to the water a little smoother because the Fidelity companies improved the passageway from the station to the old Stone and Webster building. Small improvements like these add much to the public enjoyment of the waterfront.

On the South Boston side of the Summer Street Bridge, perhaps the most significant improvement came last fall, with the opening of a section of the Harborwalk on what was once a staging area for construction of the Ted Williams Tunnel. It is already immensely popular with the people who work and live in the old industrial area nearby that is becoming a locus of office and residential development.

After much neighborhood disappointment with earlier efforts, the Boston Redevelopment Authority is working on a master plan that would allow plenty of new construction in the parking lots that dot the area, as well as a narrow park to connect the waterfront with the interior of the neighborhood. The new parkland would add to the value and livability of the neighborhood.

Back on the downtown side, the Postal Service is continuing its low-key but persistent campaign to move to land alongside the Reserve Channel in South Boston. This would open up the huge South Station site for development, and would facilitate the reopening of Dorchester Avenue and the extension of the Harborwalk all around this section of the channel. The BRA needs to keep pushing for this relocation, which would create a new commercial district, make better use of underutilized land in South Boston, and add to the public realm along on the waterfront.

Mayor Tom Menino once felt that the development of the waterfront would be one of his great contributions to the city. ''When our Seaport comes to life, don't be surprised if you see a new Boston skyline . . . capturing the splendor of our waterfront, alive with activity,'' he said in 1997.

These days, Menino seems to be more interested in downtown skyscrapers, but his words were prescient. The waterfront he foresaw is shaping up along the Fort Point Channel. He needs to make sure that it all comes together to enhance the economic vitality and public enjoyment of the city.

This story ran on page C8 of the Boston Globe on 3/19/2006.
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