BRA took short view, some say, in its nod for new Long Wharf eatery

This Long Wharf pavilion will become a restaurant, to the dismay of some neighbors and open-space advocates. This Long Wharf pavilion will become a restaurant, to the dismay of some neighbors and open-space advocates. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jesse Nankin
Globe Correspondent / March 9, 2008

The end of Long Wharf isn't much to look at, not at first. Weathered benches. Granite slabs. Black bollards connected by heavy chain. A monotony of pale stone broken only by the gray- and salmon-colored compass rose set in the ground. An open-air pavilion at pier's end.

But sit on one of those granite slabs with your back to the frenzied pace of city life, and watch a cormorant as it dives for fish in the harbor's waters. Listen to the slap of waves against the pier or the hum of the wind as it weaves through the stays of sailboats, and experience a respite unusual in downtown Boston.

Soon, though, that open-air pavilion at this quiescent spot will be transformed into a restaurant that will do business, its owners hope, nearly 18 hours a day.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city's economic development and urban planning agency and Long Wharf's landlord, has decided to commercialize a section of the wharf as part of a larger effort to revitalize an area the agency characterizes as a dead zone.

The BRA's decision has sparked controversy among advocates for open space, and among area residents who feel they were left out of discussions of plans for a public area.

"There was no attempt to improve on the current use," said David Kubiak, a 22-year resident of the North End and chairman of the North End Waterfront Residents Association's zoning, licensing, and construction committee. "The BRA seemed to decide unilaterally that this was the best way to serve the public's interest."

But others agree with the BRA that the wharf needs a face lift.

"The space will be much friendlier," waterfront resident Susanne Lavoie said. "My experiences down there now are skateboarders, trash, and rats."

Lavoie is chairwoman of the Wharf District Task Force, which has worked closely with the BRA for several years on several downtown Boston initiatives.

Then there are those who do not oppose development on Long Wharf per se, but feel the city presented the idea as a fait accompli before the public had a chance to consider alternatives.

Aaron Michlewitz, president of the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council, supports development at the end of Long Wharf, but would have considered other options had they been presented. "The BRA usually does not disclose plans until they know what they are going to do," he said.

BRA officials did not think an extensive community dialogue was necessary. Because the authority owns the land, and did not consider the project to be a neighborhood planning initiative, a less stringent process was used, according to BRA spokeswoman Jessica Shumaker.

Peter Gori, a BRA project manager working on the Long Wharf initiative, said the BRA considered alternatives, including retail stores and ticket booths, but felt that a restaurant best met the needs of the public and the agency's long-term vision for Long Wharf.

"A destination restaurant is a perfect use for that site. Not to say that a museum or a gallery wouldn't work, but this is a place for people to go, a place for people to gather, a place for people to get food, stay there and enjoy the vistas and improvements we've made."

In August 2006, the BRA sought a proposal to redevelop the 2,900-square-foot pavilion on the wharf into a restaurant. Only three proposals were submitted, and in December 2006, the BRA selected the Eat Drink Laugh Restaurant Group's designs for an eatery to be called Doc's.

Michael Conlon, principal owner of EDL, and his business partners own four other restaurants in the Boston area, including West on Centre in West Roxbury and 21st Amendment across from the State House. BRA officials liked their concept - a place that would appeal to tourists and neighborhood residents alike.

Mayor Thomas Menino liked it, too. "I'm excited to see Doc's move forward," he said in a press release last September. "EDL has a great track record in our city, and I know they will create another first-class establishment."

In his dealings with the BRA, Conlon was well represented by McDermott, Quilty & Miller, a law firm that frequently deals with the authority and whose principals are close to the mayor.

What's more, Conlon, one of his business partners, Joseph Greene, and the attorneys who represented EDL, Dennis Quilty and Joseph Hanley, donated $3,200 to Menino at critical junctures during the city approval process.

On Dec. 13, 2006, eight days before Conlon was tentatively selected for the project, Conlon, Quilty, and Hanley donated a total of $1,200 to Menino.

On Dec. 3, 2007, those three men and Joseph Greene contributed $2,000 while in the midst of lease negotiations with the BRA and just before Boston's Licensing Board granted Doc's a seven-day, all-liquor license with a 1 a.m. closing time, despite neighborhood opposition to such late hours.

Jay Walsh, neighborhood services director for Menino, said there was no connection between the contributions and the city's OK of the restaurant. "The approval was connected to the rigorous community process," he said, adding that it involved about 10 neighborhood groups and property owners. Conlon declined requests for an interview, and neither he nor Quilty returned calls regarding the political contributions.

Preliminary plans outlined in Conlon's proposal described Doc's as a moderately priced, casual dining establishment and bar. The restaurant will seat about 88 people inside, plus offer 14 seats at the bar.

Initially, Conlon's design called for 530 square feet for outdoor seating. But last November, he amended his plan to include 1,900 square feet for outdoor seating, which will accommodate about 120 more diners.

Under state law, a certain percentage of the wharf must remain open space, and public restrooms and seating must be made available. The BRA has rebutted criticism that the restaurant means a loss of public space by pointing to the 26,600 square feet that will remain open - roughly 4,000 square feet more than required by law - and the plans for picnic tables that will be available to people regardless of whether they have purchased food from Doc's.

Some local residents who frequent the wharf throughout the year fear the added hustle and bustle will spoil the wharf's offer of respite, and find the prospect of any commercialization there disheartening.

"What little open space we have, we do not need filled," North End resident Anne M. Pistario said. "We need quiet spaces to reflect."

Leaving the pavilion open was not seen as an economically viable option. Nor was it in the best interest of the public, Gori said. "Ultimately, this is a BRA site. This is a lease opportunity for us," Gori said. "We are doing significant capital improvements to Long Wharf and have been for the last couple of years - the HarborWalk on the south side and we just completed the north side - and we're looking at this as a business proposition to help fund and maintain those improvements."

The cost of this recent work approached $2 million.

Because the lease terms for Doc's are still under negotiation, the BRA would not release the yearly amount it expects to earn from lease payments. In its request for proposals, the BRA asked for a minimum rent for the first year of $142,500, but offered a $60,000 rent credit for the first five years to offset construction costs.

Just when that construction will start remains unclear. The restaurant owners had hoped it would begin this winter, so they could open by Memorial Day weekend, just in time for tourist season.

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