Shirley Leung

Harbor Garage project facing battle-tested neighbors

A view of the redevelopment concept from Boston Harbor.
Kohn Pedersen/Fox Architects
A view of Don Chiofaro’s redevelopment concept from Boston Harbor.

So now that the Big Don has made up with the Big Man at City Hall, we can take a wrecking ball to Harbor Garage, right?

C’mon, we all know better. Nothing is easy in this town.

Lost in the dialogue between Don Chiofaro and City Hall about how high the developer can build on the waterfront is the fact that he still has to deal with some battle-tested neighbors before construction cranes start arriving. There’s potential for confrontation that could make his feud with Tom Menino seem tame by comparison.


You see, Don Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage is married to Harbor Towers, a pair of 40-story condo buildings with magnificent views and well-connected owners. His $1 billion plan to replace the adjacent Harbor Garage with a pair of skyscrapers is grounds for divorce.

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Each wants out of the relationship, but they’re hardly in agreement on who gets what.

The garage and towers were built together in the early ’70s. The hulking, concrete structures rose at a time when no one wanted to be on the waterfront. Call them ugly all you want, but at least they’re I.M. Pei. Yes, the famed architect designed the widely derided buildings.

Here’s why Chiofaro and Harbor Towers were made for each other: The garage is not only where residents park, but it also houses their heating and air-conditioning systems.

When Chiofaro unveiled his much-awaited new plans for the garage site last week, he wowed us with renderings of a ground floor glass atrium and outdoor park featuring steps leading tothe harbor.


But he also made clear that, at a steep expense, he was going to keep all 1,400 parking spaces to ensure that every Harbor Towers resident can rent or buy a spot. Right now, the 624 units have long-term leases for spaces that are set to expire in 2022.

The fate of the ancient mechanical systems, however, is still up in the air. Through the years, Chiofaro has offered to move the coolers and boilers or even build new ones on Harbor Towers property. If residents insisted he keep them at the new development, he’d probably do that, too.

What we’re seeing is the new Chiofaro, trying to accommodate. After his first proposal for the garage failed spectacularly in 2009 — Menino deemed it too tall — the outspoken developer retreated. Chiofaro, who built the ginormous International Place, decided to win people over behind the scenes in a series of low-key meetings.

RELATED: Plan for harbor towers wins fresh look at City Hall

That strategy worked with Mayor Marty Walsh, who has given Chiofaro his blessing to propose big buildings on the waterfront — as long as there is enough open space and public access to the water.

Harbor Towers residents are warming up to the developer’s second act, but they remain wary. For sure, there are residents who support the proposal — that eyesore of a garage must go!


Then there is everyone else, armed with concerns about the project but also conscious of being cast as NIMBYs. Quite a few units will have their views blocked, and a massive new neighbor — 1.3 million square feet of offices, condos, retail, and restaurants — also will bring new congestion and noise. The worriers don’t talk about the height of Chiofaro’s plan, but its density. Traffic, they say, is bad enough on Atlantic Avenue.

“It’s going to be worse than Fifth Avenue,” said Marcelle Willock, chair of a Harbor Towers condo board.

Willock and other residents crave many more details before deciding whether the proposal is a plus for the neighborhood.

“Development is a good thing. It’s good for the city,” said Dwayne Bertrand, an investment executive who last year moved into a 28th floor unit. But, he added, “Can it be done to the magnitude being shown here?”

The Harbor Towers complex itself is just coming into its own as a desirable address. The Big Dig buried the Central Artery that once isolated the property from downtown; the famously leaky windows have been fixed, and the civil war among residents about six-figure assessments has ended.

Over the past couple of years, the average price of a unit in Harbor Towers has been about $786,000, according to brokerage Otis & Ahearn. Respectable, but that still lags behind downtown and Back Bay by nearly 50 percent.

Kevin Ahearn, the president of Otis & Ahearn, calls the Chiofaro project a “tremendous” opportunity that almost certainly will drive up property values.

So the irony for Harbor Towers is that the best has yet to come — and its old garage might hold the key.

More coverage:

Plan for harbor towers wins fresh look at City Hall

Photos: Don Chiofaro’s plans for site

Interactive: The planned site before and after

Shirley Leungcan be reached at Twitter: @leung.