For most people, the launch of a city planning study isn’t exactly a scintillating event.
But a new review of Boston’s downtown waterfront is worth watching: It could result in sweeping changes to the area between Long Wharf and the Northern Avenue Bridge, where city officials are seeking to reconcile big plans from developers with maintaining public access to Boston Harbor.
In the next few weeks, planners will begin devising guidelines for key development sites such as the Harbor Garage and the Hook Lobster property on Atlantic Avenue. They will also suggest ways to improve water transportation, create new and better civic spaces, and entice people to take more regular trips to the Harbor Islands.
“We want to encourage changes at the water’s edge, and connect people to the resource of Boston Harbor,” said Richard McGuinness, the official leading the effort for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Last week, the BRA awarded a $300,000 contract for the study to the firm Utile Inc. of Boston, which will hold meetings in coming months to collect suggestions from the public.
The firm’s recommendations could affect an array of properties and attractions, from the New England Aquarium, to the Harborwalk, Christopher Columbus Park, and adjacent water transportation docks. Among the most significant projects under consideration is the reconstruction of the Northern Avenue Bridge. McGuinness said officials are planning to reopen the bridge to vehicles, enhance its pedestrian lanes, and raise the bridge to allow larger boats to travel underneath.
The results of the waterfront study may also influence privately held properties near the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, including the Harbor Garage and the Long Wharf Marriott, two bulky structures that were designed at a time when they overlooked the old Central Artery instead of the parks along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
BRA officials said they want to encourage any redevelopment on those properties to include better connections between the Greenway and waterfront, while also prohibiting construction of any massive buildings that would overshadow those public spaces. A review of Greenway parcels completed in 2010 offered an initial slate of guidelines for the area, many of which will be codified into zoning as part of the upcoming study.
The officials said owners of the Marriott have floated plans to update the ground floor with glass-walled shops and cafes, as well as new public walkways outside the building. The Marriott’s owners, Sunstone Hotel Investors, could not be reached for comment.
The owners of the Harbor Garage, represented by developer Donald Chiofaro, have said they are eager to work with the city on a new plan for the site. Previously, Chiofaro proposed a pair of towering buildings that failed to gain support from the city.
Meanwhile, environmental advocates said they are pushing to ease access to water shuttle and other boat docks, and hope to spruce up the Harborwalk with new art and educational exhibits.
“The hope is that we can make the area feel more open and become even more of a destination,” said Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association. “We’ve got a good start, but we want Boston to be a world-class waterfront city.”
BRA officials said the planning study will take two years to complete, with preliminary recommendations scheduled to be released by next fall.