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Plotting the course

A vision of Boston's revitalized waterfront --
and a blueprint for making it happen.

By Timothy Leland and Thomas J. Piper
October 25, 1998

Recently back from a fact-finding tour of American cities, former Boston Redevelopment Authority director Stephen Coyle declared unequivocally: ``Boston's waterfront is the most attractive development opportunity in the United States.''

From Winthrop in the north to Hull in the south, Boston Harbor - with its 180 miles of shoreline and 46 square miles of water surface, its islands, deep-water port facilities, and 5,000-plus acres of underutilized land - is Boston's newest development frontier.

South Boston's waterfront alone, the focus of an anticipated development gold rush, could absorb 12 million square feet of new commercial space, three times the downtown commercial expansion that took place during the real estate boom of the late 1980s.

And this is only the beginning. East Boston, Chelsea, Everett, and other communities bordering the harbor's estuaries and bays all have a chance to share in the growth that will unfold over the next 50 years.

The forest of cranes that fills the skyline at the harbor's edge, the round-the-clock rumble of earth-moving equipment, the bustling of construction workers are testament to the dimension of this opportunity.

But it wasn't always so. Until a few years ago, the harbor's waterfront was a development orphan - a wasteland of low-rent warehouses, rotting wharves, and windswept parking lots.

Today, Boston Harbor and the land that surrounds it are the subject of intensive planning, potentially huge real estate development, and extensive debate, both public and private, over how to proceed. And no wonder. The way Boston's waterfront is transformed will determine the look and feel of the city for the next century and beyond.

Despite an apparent lack of interest in the harbor till recently, pressure to plan for its future has been building for more than 15 years. As the center of New England's economy, Boston Harbor has been the focus of a decade-long, $4 billion cleanup. In combination with the $10.8 billion Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project and the $1 billion airport modernization program, the commitment to the harbor and its environs dwarfs any other urban transformation under way in the United States today.

Thank the late US Representative Thomas P. ``Tip'' O'Neill, his colleagues in the Massachusetts delegation, and bipartisan supporters on the home front for unprecedented foresight. The resulting nexus of good political timing and diligent local action - ``government working, for a change,'' as former governor William F. Weld described it _ is altering Boston's landscape.

Prompted by the more than $17 billion worth of public works under way, The Boston Globe and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last spring teamed up to convene a major policy forum on Boston Harbor. The four-day conference, produced in association with WCVB-TV, Channel 5, was principally funded by Fleet Financial Group. This special section on the status of Boston's waterfront and the plans for its development grew out of that conference.

There is certainly no shortage of proposals for the development to come.

There is the BRA's interim proposal for the 1,000-acre Seaport District. There are Massport's plans and proposals for the 300-plus acres it owns on the water's edge. There are proposals put forward by the Boston Society of Architects. There are designs being prepared by planners of the Massachusetts Convention Center, to be located in the heart of the Seaport District. There are proposals in the works by the various property owners. And, of course, community and advocacy groups with a stake in the area are pushing their own ideas.

The debate about waterfront development affects at least four distinct realms, each with its own goals and challenges. These include:

  • A 300-acre mixed-use commercial development district that would include an entirely new living-working neighborhood on Boston's waterfront, anchored by the Massachusetts Convention Center;
  • Boston's working port, with its potential for development of the traditional fishing industry, new directions in the area of containerized shipping, and expansion of the cruise ship industry and related tourism;
  • The 30 Harbor Islands recently designated a national park, with their recreational, educational, and commercial potential;
  • Boston Harbor itself, with its opportunities for rapid and convenient water transit.

All these realms are in play in any discussion of the future of Boston's waterfront, and the national panel of the Boston Harbor Conference made 10 recommendations that encompassed them all.

The commercial opportunity represented by Boston's waterfront is immense. An MIT study done in conjunction with the Globe/MIT conference estimated that the harbor economy will generate construction of up to 5,000 hotel rooms (beyond the 3,000 required by the convention center) and 14 million square feet of commercial and residential space in the Seaport District and around the Inner Harbor. It will create up to 60,000 permanent jobs in hotel, retail, office, and entertainment industries through the year 2020.

Waterfront development is expected to inject salaries, wages, and business income of more than $2.2 billion per year into Boston's economy, beyond what is anticipated for the new convention center.

Boston's downtown expansion along the waterfront into the Fort Point Channel area - bounded, roughly, by the channel, Summer Street, D Street, and the water's edge - will inevitably create a new neighborhood. But what kind of neighborhood will it be? Will it have a character and texture appropriate to Boston's traditions?

The very first recommendation to come out of the Harbor Conference dealt with this issue, urging that the new neighborhood have a street grid ``compatible with Boston's city-block scale.'' Joan Goody, a prominent Boston urban designer, pointed out in testimony before the panel that the streets now in the Seaport District create enormous blocks, twice the size of New York City's. ``Our plans for the Seaport must ... create a finer grain of streets,'' Goody said.

Parks and open space also determine the quality of life in the public realm. The national panel envisioned a continuous esplanade for pedestrians and bicyclists that would snake through the Seaport District, holding to the water's edge wherever feasible.

The panel called for creation of a Boston Harbor Island Institute to document the harbor's history, geology, and ocean environment. It also recommended a cultural and entertainment complex for Spectacle Island.

While ``somewhat dubious'' about Boston's prospects as a working port, the panel encouraged Massport to do everything feasible to attract container shipping. The panel believed that Boston can be a ``world-class port of call'' for cruise ships and urged Massport to construct a new cruise ship terminal with sightlines to downtown.

The dream of the litigants who forced the harbor cleanup was that the waterfront would come alive again, not only as a center of commerce and urban living but also as a natural environment for recreation and learning. Today, that dream is becoming a reality.

In 1630, John Winthrop spoke of founding a shining ``city upon a hill''; in these pages, the Globe reports on Boston's effort to restore the shine all the way to the waterfront, the last frontier of this city upon a hill.

Timothy Leland, who recently retired as a vice president of the Globe, and Thomas J. Piper, executive director of the Boston Harbor Conference and a research scientist at MIT, coproduced the Boston Harbor Conference.

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