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Feeling the pinch amid development, lobster company clings to the past

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anthony Flint
Globe Staff / August 27, 1999

Over her 54 years as bookkeeper for James Hook and Co., peering out from the second floor of a blood-red lobster shanty on the banks of Fort Point Channel, Eunice Berger has watched the world change all around her.

The Central Artery went up outside Hook's front door and is now being torn down. The elegant Rowes Wharf complex became a new neighbor to the north, the Evelyn Moakley bridge was installed to the south, and the new federal courthouse sprung up across the channel.

But today, with a proposal to replace the Old Northern Avenue bridge with a restaurant and shopping complex, Berger is starting to feel like the world is closing in.

``It's so picturesque here. I would miss being able to see across the water,'' said Berger, 82, between answering phones in the frenetic shop, a jumble of lobster tanks, crushed ice, and tourists looking to take a little taste of Boston home. ``We've got so much that's new. All the old shops are gone.''

In business for 75 years, the family that runs Hook Lobster worries they will be overwhelmed by gleaming new waterfront development. Company president James Hook said the complex proposed by Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises would block his views and potentially hurt his thriving business. He questions why new development is needed when his shop is encouraging people to walk along the waterfront just the way it is -- charming, full of character and history, and worn like a broken-in baseball glove.

``This is typical of the business we do here,'' he said on a recent sunny afternoon, as tourists clutching maps of downtown Boston queued up for ice-packed lobster and children peered into tubs crawling with giant crustaceans.

Hook Lobster's predicament is being repeated all across the South Boston waterfront, as the old makes way for the new. A vocal group of preservationists say that not only Hook Lobster, but the Old Northern Avenue bridge itself, should be preserved and recognized for its authenticity.

``Hook's casual flavor is the real thing, a holdout against the corporate homogenization oozing all over Boston,'' said Paul Farrell, an architect who leads the group Save the Old Northern Avenue Bridge, who warns against ``losing another piece of what makes Boston different.''

Thomas N. O'Brien, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said that ``keeping the genuine article -- making sure there is room on the waterfront for historic purposes -- is a priority for us. Mark us down for wanting to keep Hook Lobster, and the Barking Crab [across the channel] just the way it is.''

But O'Brien said that Hook Lobster ``was not a clean case'' of an old, existing waterfront use being overrun by new development. Hook has entertained the idea of selling the shop and the parcel where it sits, reportedly for a price of nearly $40 million. ``We can use our tools of planning and zoning to try to keep those uses there, but we can't prevent these properties from being sold in the future,'' O'Brien said.

Hook said this week he doesn't want to sell to anyone. He acknowledged that he liked a proposal by Boston developer Eamon O'Marah, which was not chosen by the BRA for the redevelopment of the Old Northern Avenue bridge, better than the Forest City proposal, which he thinks is too big. He is also annoyed because Forest City representatives have not called him recently.

Gayle Friedland, president of Forest City's Boston division, said company architects have been busy fine-tuning plans for the 120,000-square foot complex, which will include shops, restaurants, a marina, and boardwalk-style pedestrian crossings across the channel.

``We'll talk to him as soon as we have something that's blessed by the BRA,'' Friedland said in an interview at the University Park complex in Cambridge, the largest Forest City project to date in the Boston area. ``None of us like change. He wants the world to go away. But he's an important abutter, important to the feel of the place, and if he wants to stay exactly the way he is, that's fine with us.''

Friedland said Forest City has done dozens of historic preservation projects, but that the Old Northern Avenue bridge would be too expensive to save as is. If the city wants to maintain a pedestrian crossing at the site, a new structure is needed that will make economic sense, she said.

The Fort Point Channel project, called ``Seaport Crossing'' before Mayor Thomas M. Menino changed the name of the area to the South Boston Waterfront, will create a vibrant water transportation hub and a place for residents and visitors to enjoy views of Boston Harbor, Friedland said. It will be evocative of the old industrial bridge it will replace; and the project can peacefully co-exist with both the Barking Crab and Hook Lobster on either bank of the channel, she added.

``There are lots of places where there's a mix of old and new,'' Friedland said, citing the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, or Trinity Church reflected off the John Hancock tower in Back Bay.

Berger remains skeptical. Shielding her sparkling brown eyes from the sun, she peered across the channel to the new Seaport hotel and Fidelity office tower rising up farther east on the waterfront, near the World Trade Center. All of that is so new, she said.

``There used to be cobblestones right here,'' she said, pointing to the street outside Hook Lobster, which now terminates in hulking concrete barriers. Trucks from the Big Dig rumbled nearby. ``This is so much nicer than another dress shop. We've got plenty of those already.''

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