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Boston Redevelopment Authority launches waterfront district zoning process

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  March 14, 2013 06:50 PM

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Greenway District Planning Study.jpg

Boston Redevelopment Authority

An image from the 2010 Greenway District Planning Study that will serve as a jumping-off point for the new waterfront district zoning process.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority on Wednesday night launched an effort to create a zoning plan that would better link the Financial District to the downtown waterfront and create more thoughtful relationships between the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and adjacent structures.

The effort continues work begun in 2009, when Mayor Thomas M. Menino tasked the BRA with developing new guidelines for reconnecting city neighborhoods surrounding the Greenway that had previously been divided by the Elevated Central Artery, said Richard McGuiness, the BRA’s deputy director for waterfront planning.

That process concluded in August 2010, when the authority released those guidelines, McGuiness said, and the process beginning this week will codify them and several overlapping city and state plans into new zoning for the waterfront district.

BRA Director Peter Meade and Chief Planner Kairos Shen spoke of the many improvements in the waterfront area in recent decades, as once-foul Boston Harbor has been cleaned up and the Big Dig replaced the forbidding Central Artery with an inviting string of parks.

Since the 1950s, when urban renewal and construction of the elevated roadway began, Shen said, downtown Boston has been a laboratory where different urban planning policies have been tried out.

Matthew Littell, a principal at the architecture and planning firm Utile Inc. hired as a consultant to the BRA, said that today Boston Harbor is one of the most attractive and actively used waterfronts in New England.

“Obviously we are starting from a very strong place,” Littell said. But he hopes to make the waterfront even more active by incorporating new uses that will draw more visitors and encourage them to come back again and again.

Littell said the plan must also address “scarred edges” along the Greenway, where buildings were literally cut in half to make space for the Central Artery or where existing buildings were torn down, exposing the backs of adjacent buildings that then faced the highway.

While the artery stood, Littell said, some new buildings were built with their backs turned to it, and several large garages were built to accommodate the heavy traffic that traveled Interstate 93 into downtown. Because so many structures along the Greenway present unsightly or simply blank faces, work must be done to reconnect these structures and maximize their interactions with the parkland, he said.

The presence of the Greenway alongside several underused parcels presents great opportunities for expanded development in the area, but that must be balanced with the need to preserve the open space and not create excessive shadows that would reduce enjoyment of the green space, he said.

The new plan, McGuinness said, will need to address climate change and sea-level rise along the waterfront, where the harbor already overflows at the New England Aquarium and Harbor Towers during lunar high tides and large storms. It will also include the city’s Green Building standards for energy efficiency, he said.

With close to 200 waterfront and North End residents and other stakeholders in attendance at the kickoff meeting, there were a variety of issues raised, including how the area would deal with increased vehicular traffic that more visitors would presumably bring to the already congested district.

Meade said the BRA would embrace Menino’s policy of encouraging multiple modes of transportation, with an emphasis on bicycling, walking, and public transportation over individual car usage.

“The car is not our enemy, but it’s certainly not our friend,” Meade said.

Residents also expressed concern about the noise brought by increasing late-night crowds and more vehicles, and possible light pollution from new development.

The process will continue, McGuinness said, with a public charrette scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday, and then the selection of an advisory committee that will meet monthly, beginning sometime in April. Depending on how the process proceeds from there, he said, it might take as little as six months or as long as two years.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
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