The Boston Phoenix
February 19 - 26, 1998

[On The Waterfront]

With the South Boston Seaport, the city could open up a spectacular new public waterfront. Unless developers succeed in walling it off.

by Yvonne Abraham

Boston's new federal courthouse is a disaster.

While the people inside the almost-finished building -- on the very edge of the Fan Pier, just across the Fort Point Channel from the Financial District -- will have a lovely view, the rest of us will not. Because the fat red behemoth, 12 stories tall, and as big as two and a half football fields, squats too close to the water's edge, walling off the harbor, even hiding the small public park soon to be nudged into its hollowed-out front. At the leading edge of what will become the new South Boston Seaport, the courthouse is a study in how not to develop a waterfront.

[Waterfront Map] The rest of that waterfront -- a thousand acres of valuable and potentially beautiful land from the Fort Point Channel to the shipping terminals by Castle Island -- will very soon be transformed. And if this city isn't careful, the South Boston Seaport will repeat the mistakes of the courthouse.

Boston hasn't seen a development project this big since the Back Bay was created. If this last big chunk of unused waterfront land in the Northeast is developed properly, the impact will be felt far beyond the artists' lofts, surface parking lots, industrial areas, and Southie neighborhoods that now occupy those thousand acres. It will pull the entire city's center of gravity south, reshaping its character just as the Back Bay did a hundred years ago.

That isn't some distant dream: the new seaport is taking shape right now. The city's new convention center, which will anchor the area, has been approved, its location already determined; billions of public dollars have already been poured into the district to prepare it for future use, producing a $4 billion harbor cleanup and promises of a new transportation system. The courthouse and the new Seaport Hotel, by the World Trade Center, are already in place. Property values in surrounding neighborhoods are already rising.

Developers, spurred by a good economy and enormous public investment, are impatient to kick-start projects they've had on hold for years. They're drawing up plans, the most important of which so far is the Pritzker family's proposal for the whole of the Fan Pier, which runs between the courthouse and Pier 4. Completion date: 2002.

For years, the city has talked about creating a vision for the entire area; now, events have overtaken us. Last November, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) released its interim plan for the seaport, unleashing torrents of criticism in the press, and from residents and neighborhood activists. And with good cause. Although the BRA insists it's merely taken the first step in what will be an ongoing process, its approach so far seems likely to doom the authority to a very long game of catch-up. The seaport plan doesn't have a grand enough vision, nor an ambitious enough conception of what the waterfront could be for the people of this city -- both of which are vital to shaping that district, even this early in the process.

Huge chunks of this city are torn up right now as the multibillion-dollar Big Dig project tries to reconnect Boston with its harbor. The city's plan for the South Boston Seaport undermines that effort. Despite its ambitious talk and good intentions, the BRA has set the bar for developers too low, and they're already fixing to jump over it.

"If this city doesn't get the overriding design and community objectives done upfront, we'll never be able to make reasonable decisions about what's being proposed and what's being achieved," says Boston architect John Stebbins. "We're getting very close to losing the opportunity to influence that development."

With the South Boston Seaport, the BRA has the chance to reconfigure the way Boston relates to its harbor, to open it up in an unprecedented way. Elsewhere along the waterfront, development has been piecemeal -- haphazard, some would say. Here, Boston has the closest thing to a tabula rasa that any coastal city will ever be likely to get this late in the millennium.

For every spectacular achievement of modern urban planning, there is an equally spectacular disaster. And along waterfronts, with all that built-in scenery and open sky, bad planning seems especially tragic.

Take Atlantic City. There, miles of huge, ugly casinos and amusements line what could be a spectacular waterfront. A wall of buildings hugs the water's edge, turning its back on the neighborhood behind -- a mess of boarded-up and broken-down housing just two blocks from the ocean. The neighborhood and the boardwalk are separate cities, with nothing in common visually or culturally. Tourists arrive in buses, or leave their cars on buckling parking lots a few minutes from the boardwalk, sticking to the bland eateries and generic culture of the casino strip.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sydney Harbour. There, hundreds of acres of botanical gardens and cafés line the water's edge; residents live in well-maintained mixed-income housing (some of it more than a hundred years old) at the foot of the Harbour Bridge; the Sydney Opera House, distinctive theaters and art museums, and an observatory attract visitors. Low-rise hotels and office buildings have been placed farther along the waterfront, but not too close to the shoreline. The whole area is a tourist magnet, a resident mecca, a central business district, a cultural epicenter.

The best waterfronts open up access to the water for ordinary folks, not just paying restaurant patrons or hotel guests. They have at their hearts large, signature open spaces where people can play games, stroll, or bring a picnic and a towel and spend long Sunday afternoons -- as they do in Chicago, where 3200 acres of public park along Lake Michigan draw people from even the suburbs, or on the Charles River Esplanade or at Castle Island, both of which are jammed on summer weekends. They are cultural centers like the new Cleveland waterfront, with its Science Center and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. They are lively neighborhoods in which to work and live, like the Back Bay. They blend seamlessly into the cities of which they are part, so that the distinctive qualities that draw tourists to those cities -- quaintness, perhaps, or interesting modern architecture -- draw them to the waterfronts as well.

The worst developments make little of the scenery for anyone but the denizens of cold, office park-like buildings or luxury high rises. They jam thin, soulless public spaces between buildings that bear no relation to the city's character and architecture. They look like Charles River Park, with its cluster of bleak, imposing apartment towers surrounded by parking lots and sickly attempts at green space. They are brutal, inhumanly scaled City Hall Plazas by the sea. By day, they may be overrun with workers and traffic. But at night, the public abandons them for more welcoming environs.

Steve Hollinger, a Fort Point Channel resident, flips through the BRA's glossy 40-page seaport interim plan, and gives a chuckle when he gets to the pages outlining what its sidewalks will look like. Hollinger is a member of the Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design (SAND), which represents artists and businesses in the channel area. "Look at these Disneyland light fixtures," he says, pointing to an especially intricate diagram. "There's more regulation on these light fixtures than on anything else in here!"

That's the problem with the BRA's interim plan, say its critics: too much detail in the wrong places. It misses the big picture. "One needs a vision for this type of development," says John Stebbins. "And I don't think the BRA or the city are even claiming their plan is a vision."

BRA director Thomas N. O'Brien is the front man for the city's South Boston Seaport proposal, the person charged with reassuring critics that the city's heart is in the right place on this one. The clean-cut, nattily dressed 34-year-old can work a public meeting in a way that Bob Kraft -- who tried to sell a new football stadium to Southie last year and got run out of town -- can only dream of. In the nervous communities that will be most directly affected by the seaport development, O'Brien nods sympathetically when people talk of their fears. He repeatedly says he wants the same things they do: harbor accessibility, cultural attractions, public space, shared economic benefits.

And the report his authority has put forward talks of those things, too. It speaks of creating "a vibrant public realm that gives identity to the seaport, welcomes pedestrians, provides routes and views to the waterfront, creates parks and plazas, fosters cultural uses, and generates activity day and evening."

Even as it asserts the importance of those goals, though, the plan puts them out of reach. Over the last few months, Mayor Menino has repeatedly said he would not allow developers to "Manhattanize" the waterfront with tall buildings. But according to the authority's plan, the buildings closest to the water in this area will be 10 stories high. They'll be 20 stories in the blocks further back, and as high as 30 stories behind that, along what will become New Northern Avenue, the main east-west artery through the area. Between New Northern Avenue and Summer Street, buildings will range in height from eight stories, near the channel, to 20 stories closer to the World Trade Center. Between Summer Street and West 1st Street -- the start of Southie proper -- they'll go from six stories to 16 stories at the edge of the new convention center.

The buildings proposed by the BRA will wall off the harbor and turn their backs on the existing neighborhoods. Few of the structures are yet designed, but the BRA does have sketches and scale models of the area, and it looks uncannily like downtown.

"The focus right now is on trying to duplicate the Financial District next to the Fan Pier, with a forest of towers between the courthouse and the World Trade Center," says Jon Seward, a Fort Point Channel architect and member of SAND. The buildings allowed along the waterfront may not be as high those in the Financial District, but they don't have to be that high to undermine the area's appeal. Even a relatively low building, if it's wide enough, can cut off the water -- just as the courthouse does.

O'Brien hints that his modified plan for the seaport might limit width in exchange for more concessions to developers on height. "We don't envision big blocks of buildings that look like the courthouse," he says. "We'd rather organize them on a different axis -- more height so that you preserve the view corridors. The height will be organized in such a way that it steps back from the waterfront and makes the pubic feel absolutely welcome to walk along that waterfront. That's the Holy Grail for us."

But O'Brien's critics, especially the artists and architects of the Fort Point Channel area, say he'll have to do a lot more than fiddle with heights to make the public feel welcome. Even if the public feels comfortable passing through the forest of buildings to get to the water's edge, they may not want to stay once they get there. "I'm not sure height is a problem in and of itself," says Peter Kuttner, president of the Boston Society of Architects. But at the seaport, which faces north, "tall buildings would cast shadows and block views to the waterfront."

Even the park in front of the courthouse, which Boston Harbor Association chief Vivien Li says took five years to squeeze out of the developers, will be in shadow for most of the day. "Parks that are in shadow are useless," Li reminded everyone at a recent meeting to discuss the Pritzkers' Fan Pier development, which will comprise an 800-room hotel, a high-rise condo building, and four office blocks. "Parks are designed for people to use, not just as pretty spaces," says Li, whose nonprofit group pushes for an accessible Boston Harbor.

Tom O'Brien stands before 250 angry South Boston residents at the Condon School on a cold January night, trying to reassure them that the seaport development won't be all bad. He tries the public-access spiel. "We're gonna force these developers to build a Harborwalk," O'Brien says. "Today, remember, nobody can walk along the harbor, but we're gonna force them to do that."

The BRA's plan allows for 25 acres of public space at the seaport, most of which will be taken up by the much-ballyhooed Harborwalk, which will eventually provide pedestrian access along the city's shoreline for 43 miles from the Chelsea Creek to the Neponset River. The Harborwalk is a wonderful idea, and an excellent first step in reconnecting Bostonians to their waterfront (provided they'll want to use the portions of it that will be in shadow much of the day). But it's not enough.

Even as it seeks to build on Boston's reputation as a walking city, the BRA's plan demonstrates little appreciation of what the seaport will be like to walk around. It takes more than sidewalks for a place to be pedestrian-friendly. That's why Comm Ave is overrun with pedestrians on weekends and why Washington Street, in the South End, is deserted. Good walkways allow people to slow down to a stroll if they want to, and to have conversations without shouting over traffic. They have places to stop and rest. They lead somewhere.

Already, the authority has taken a lot of heat for the fact that the main boulevards running through the seaport, from the channel to the industrial port, will be hopelessly clogged with all kinds of vehicles, including 50-foot semis on their way from downtown to the wharves. The Ted Williams Tunnel will disgorge traffic into the district, too, adding to the gridlock.

One of those boulevards is rendered in a BRA sketch as a serene-looking pedestrian haven with a few passenger cars dotted about. Not likely. Under the current plan, it'll be very hard indeed to maintain such a hospitable streetscape. Where planners see outdoor cafés on the equivalent of a Newbury Street, latte sippers are more likely to find themselves stranded on the equivalent of the Jamaicaway.

The blocks on those main arteries will also be very long, and that gives cars an opportunity to gather speed. "The basic block sizes there have been driven by the transportation designers and traffic engineers," says Stebbins. "That doesn't necessarily make it a desirable and attractive pedestrian environment."

For the area to take on its own life and character, people have to do more than just walk through it: they have to want to stay a while, and they have to be able to stay for free. And that's not going to happen without a large, sunny, signature green space like the Public Garden.

"There should be more than just public accessibility at the water's edge," says Stebbins. "There should be public use of the water's edge." A public park is more attractive to most people than a private hotel terrace any day, no matter how much owners insist the ordinary folks will be welcome. "A hotel is not where we hang out," says one Fort Point resident. "Everything they're doing is for strangers."

Right now, the city is allowing developers to squeeze an awful lot into the waterfront, especially at the South Boston Inner Harbor, the area between the courthouse and Pier 4, where most of the major construction will be: 5000 hotel rooms, one million square feet of retail space, two million square feet of residential space, and 14 million square feet of commercial space. That won't leave much room for anything else.

The interim plan reassures citizens that "additional [public] spaces will be required on private parcels of land when more specific sets of uses and densities are determined." The problem here is that the plan takes its design cues from the ways private owners will use their land. It fits the public's needs into the developers' proposals -- demanding of them only the Harborwalk, then tucking green space in between buildings where possible.

If the seaport is to work, that process needs to be reversed: the BRA has to decide what will make the waterfront the kind of place people will flock to on weekends, then regulate development accordingly. This is the difference between a road map and vision. The best plan for the area would look at the big picture -- not just for the immediate area, but for all of Boston -- and ask the question "What should go here so that all the city's residents can get the most benefit?" Then it should set about tailoring development to that vision.

Think of some of the things that make this city great: its cultural institutions, its architecture, its charming neighborhoods, and the fact that those neighborhoods are surrounded by -- not a bus ride from -- downtown. The city is lively because all those uses are mixed together: retail, housing, and cultural attractions mingle to bring people in from other places (witness Newbury Street).

So far, the BRA's plan has made little attempt to extend such a blend into the seaport. There is no provision for cultural institutions in any of the seaport's thousand acres, apart from the existing Children's and Computer Museums. Harborlights, which drew thousands of concertgoers over the channel each year, is no more, the beams that once supported its canopy thrust into the air like the legs of some dead insect. There was a proposal to relocate the Institute of Contemporary Art to the Fan Pier, but the federal courthouse put an end to that. Then Fort Point Channel artists were promised a gallery inside the courthouse, but that got lost along the way as well.

Maintaining a balance of uses at the water's edge isn't easy, but it's vital to integrating waterfronts into the lives of cities. Good planning is about much more than putting the buildings in the right places, or even clearing public space. It's about giving people a reason to visit an area any time of the day and night, and cultural institutions do that. It's about giving both locals and tourists a reason to want to hang around there, and neighborhoods do that.

Every year, thousands of tourists climb into Duck Tours land-sea vehicles to laugh at guides' corny jokes, quack at pedestrians, and ooh and aah at Boston. Duck Tours don't just sell the water: they sell history and architecture and neighborhoods. They sell Boston's character-- the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, and other unique neighborhoods where real people live amid the history and the quaintness. Needless to say, Charles River Park is not on their itinerary.

The seaport should confirm Boston's character, right to the water's edge. And there's more than authenticity and quality of life at stake. Cultural tourists, the kind who go to cities to absorb their arts offerings and distinctive atmosphere, tend to drop more money on average -- 30 percent more-- than your typical Hard Rock buff.

The waterfront should also feel like home to residents. But the BRA's plan has yet to acknowledge the importance of neighborhood to a vital waterfront. So far, the proposal makes little provision for bringing a sense of community -- which runs through this city's most successful districts -- into the seaport. It's not just that the seaport won't look like the rest of the city. If it goes ahead as planned, it won't be like the rest of the city. It is residents, not hotel guests or nine-to-fivers, who give cities life. Without a real neighborhood, the area is destined to remain cold and characterless -- a windblown Kendall Square with (maybe) better views.

The housing that developers have proposed to date is of the costly high-rise variety, which rarely builds a sense of community. "We're concerned about, and examining the balance of, residential uses," says Todd Lee, who cochairs the Boston Society of Architects' seaport focus team. "It can't all be super-luxury housing at the water's edge if you want to build a diverse and vibrant community."

The BRA has suggested 76 single-family homes on D Street, in the buffer zone around the convention center, and O'Brien says there will be more affordable housing to come as the plans move further along (again with the piecemeal public-benefit planning). But neighborhoods are made up of more than just houses: they have corner stores and libraries and even schools, and the plan does not allow room for all that to develop. "There's no basis here for all the things a community requires," says a Fort Point architect. "Places to live, shop, gather, play. Everything South Boston already has should be allowed to grow here , and it's not even being considered. There has to be some possibility of organic growth. Where do we open a frame shop?"

Without these things, whatever seaport neighborhood there is will be a soulless theme park.

So far, the BRA has been lowering expectations about what it can do. O'Brien continually invokes private sovereignty. "It's important to remind people that virtually all of this land is owned by private entities," he says. "The city's role is just to impose controls. It's private developers who'll be using it." At meetings, he is more blunt. "Look, I'm not the one pushing for this," he told an angry resident at the Condon School, getting a bit testy himself. "This is happening whether we like it or not."

Critics wonder why there's been no talk of land swaps, or of the city taking some of the seaport land by eminent domain. That criticism might not be entirely fair: eminent domain would force private owners to sell land to the city, but the city would have to come up with the money to buy it at market value, and there are plenty of other things -- education, for example -- on which to spend the city's funds (the convention center is already going to cost it $157 million).

But despite the fact that much of this land is private property, there is plenty the BRA can do. As the agency that approves all construction projects, the authority has the last word on what ends up on that waterfront. It has enormous bargaining power, especially because these are good times for the city; it's not desperate for developers' money, as it was during Mayor Kevin White's construction-boom tenure.

"Tom O'Brien says we either have nothing, or we have this plan," says Hollinger. "Why are they the only two choices? There can also be creative development."

Creative development would mean large, sunny public spaces. It would mean insisting that developers lower buildings close to the water's edge. It would bring cultural activities to the waterfront, regulate traffic to make the seaport a hospitable place for pedestrians of all incomes, build more (and more diverse) housing. It would, in short, plan a truly public place, allowing a community to grow -- and bringing the same quirky vitality to the South Boston Seaport that makes other Boston neighborhoods so irresistible to locals and tourists alike.

When pushed, Tom O'Brien admits that the BRA can do much more than lay out street plans. "We have the power to make this a great area," he says.

He and the city just haven't used it yet.

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yabraham[a]

Bringing it home

For residents of South Boston, the seaport plan isn't so much about the future of the city as about the future of their neighborhood.

Southie is one of the two or three tightest-knit neighborhoods in Boston, a traditionally Irish, largely working-class, politically involved -- and connected -- community. Despite waves of gentrification, Southie residents have always seen their neighborhood as a place where ordinary folks can get a leg up, where they can afford to raise families.

Now, they're afraid that will all be gone.

"Soon, my children won't be able to live here," says local activist Tom Driscoll. "I can see this neighborhood changing within a generation. Blue-collar laborers will no longer be able to afford to live here."

This isn't the first time Southie has resisted change. Last year, for example, the community -- backed by the powerful politicians who represent them -- beat back Bob Kraft's football stadium proposal. Even some neighborhood activists concede that Southie is an insular place, where knee-jerk reactions against perceived encroachments on tradition are commonplace. It's a community still nursing its wounds from the school desegregation battles of the '70s. Community meetings on the seaport proposal have so far invariably brought one or two speeches from residents who see the development as more social engineering, the logical conclusion of busing.

"We worked hard to keep this a viable community," said one woman at a recent meeting. "Everybody that went through the hardship of 1974, now we want our payback."

But there are many folks in Southie who recognize the need for development -- even in their own back yards -- and still disagree with the direction it's taking.

They're right to be concerned. Even though the seaport won't be complete for decades, it's already costing the people who live on its fringes. Anticipation has inflated rents and property taxes: in Southie alone, average rents have jumped 40 percent over the past two years (according to the Massachusetts Tenants Organization, rents in the rest of the city rose 40 percent over the past seven years). Artists in the Fort Point Channel area are feeling squeezed out as landlords such as Boston Wharf prepare to welcome lawyers and others who will be working in the area, and paying higher rents.

Boston Redevelopment Authority chief Tom O'Brien takes a good deal of heat at those meetings from residents who accuse him of selling their futures out from under them. And he tries to be reassuring. He promises South Boston compensation, and outlines the beginnings of a mitigation package: more than $60 million in linkage funds for housing; job and business training worth $13 million; a Harborwalk worth $9 million. There will be jobs for residents in construction, as well as in the finished seaport. "What we need to talk about is how we can get you a piece of the pie," he told a livid woman at a recent meeting.

Residents aren't buying it. Compensation alone is not enough: one-time mitigation payments won't sustain Southie over generations, nor guard against the kind of inequalities one sees in Atlantic City, where garish casinos hog the waterfront as houses crumble just blocks away.

"They run the risk of creating a time bomb here," says Paul Ulrich, a community activist and father of eight. "Residents of public housing will be able to see those flashy new buildings out their kitchen windows." Unless the community feels invested in the seaport, he says, that time bomb will continue ticking.

It's vital that Southie feel invested in the development: the community needs some kind of sustained involvement in the seaport. Having locals live there would certainly help, but so far, the plan hasn't included much in the way of affordable -- or even non-luxury -- housing. Jobs for residents would help, too, and those do seems likely to appear.

But the best way to keep locals invested in the development would be to give them a financial stake -- not just a one-time payoff, but a chance for South Boston to become a joint venture partner in the seaport. The city could require private developers to turn over some land to the community, for housing or a for-profit enterprise that would funnel funds back into the neighborhood. Ulrich's idea -- and he concedes this is probably more creative than the city wants to get -- is to turn over a small amount of land, or maybe even some of the new rooftops, to a Southie trust for use as a nonprofit hydroponic farm. That, he says, would send millions of dollars back into the community indefinitely, keeping housing affordable and neighborhood businesses alive.

That kind of thinking would do a lot more than a one-time mitigation package to ease Southie's fears. It would also feel less like a payoff.

"Let us be a part of it," Ulrich says.