Few Bostonians — except maybe some sea gulls — get to revel in the views from Dry Dock No. 4.
What a shame.
If we don’t get our act together, we might leave the best part of the Seaport District to the birds — or worse, to more condo owners and office tenants.
I got to go beyond the gates that restrict access to the city-owned land, which juts into the harbor just like the nearby World Trade Center and Boston Fish Pier do. The dry dock and flanking piers are cracked and rusting, but the site’s potential is staggering.
On a glorious summer day, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. You can soak in the downtown skyline, admire Liberty Wharf, spot a harbor island — all against the backdrop of glistening water and passing sailboats. And at night, you can imagine enjoying live music wafting from the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, which sits next door.
The city is well aware of the pressure to do more here than just another Fan Pier or Seaport Square, with luxury towers that wall off the waterfront.
Already, the conservation group Trustees of Reservations has identified the 5.8-acre dry dock as a potential site for a public park. But for all the talk on both sides about the need for more open space, a serious discussion has yet to take place.
What are we waiting for?
I’ve got to think money is at issue for the city. Condos and office buildings generate tax revenue; trees and park benches do not. If anything, open space costs the city money in the form of maintenance. Look at the handwringing over who will pick up the tab for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
But this is our shot at taking the Seaport from good to great. We can no longer just hope developers do the right thing when it comes to public space. We shouldn’t expect them to. Their priority will always be profits, not creating the next Esplanade.
That responsibility rests on the city and the community, and lucky for us, there is a groundswell of support and private money waiting in the wings. Billionaire Amos Hostetter Jr., for one, is already bankrolling waterfront planning efforts through the work of the trustees and others.
I am told that the trustees without much effort have raised more than $20 million for a fund to create waterfront parks. Yet it’s a drop in the bucket. The group anticipates needing tens of millions of dollars more to fulfill its vision.
Among those you can count on is Don Law, the concert promoter and president of Live Nation New England. We forget, but he was a pioneer on the South Boston waterfront when he set up a tented music venue on Fan Pier more than two decades ago, and later moved it to the city-owned Wharf 8 back when few pedestrians would venture into the Seaport.
Now called Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, the venue is a summertime fixture, attracting some 200,000 attendees annually It’s a symbol of Law’s long-held belief that the harborfront is a hidden gem.
Law shared with me a rendering from the trustees on what a public park would look like on Dry Dock No. 4, lush with trees and walkways and devoid of a gleaming glass tower. Coincidentally, prominent Boston architect Alex Krieger, who has done work in the Seaport for more than two decades, showed me a similar rendering he drew on his own, so people can envision the dry dock as a recreational area complete with a magnificent swimming pool.
Law knows that creating a signature open space comes with a steep price tag; the city has estimated that the infrastructure upgrades alone to the dock and piers would cost millions of dollars. Without revenue from development, private fund-raising would need to take place.
Would he write a check?
“The answer is yes. It’s an important piece the city needs to invest in,” said Law. “As someone who has watched this for a long time, it’s long overdue.”
The city’s own ideas for the dry dock have been uninspiring. It was built in 1941 as a ship repair facility, but it has been years since it has functioned as one. Under the Menino administration, it was the proposed site of a new City Hall, until that plan was scrapped. Last fall, city and state officials recommended that a public helipad serving companies like General Electric be built on the dry dock or on a floating barge next to it. Neighbors objected over noise concerns, but that idea went away after GE decided it didn’t need a helipad after all.
A recent update to the city’s marine industrial park master plan suggested that Dry Dock No. 4 could be the new home of water-dependent businesses located in the Boston Fish Pier, which would allow that site to be converted into commercial or residential use. One caveat: Massport owns the Fish Pier, so it would be up to it to decide what to do with the property, which has leases until 2029.
I sensed City Hall’s ambivalence when I walked the dock earlier this week with Rich McGuinness, the city’s waterfront planning czar. He agreed the views are amazing, but he also pointed out that it’s a complicated site that would require an expensive upgrade whether it becomes a park or not.
Officials also don’t want to do anything before the state approves the city’s marine industrial park plan.
But just as I thought I was backing a lost cause, McGuinness said something that gave me hope. He could see the potential of doing something different on the site, perhaps a water transportation hub.
“Could it act like a Long Wharf?” he posited, referring to the downtown waterfront area where ferries launch and boats dock at marinas.
This seems like progress, and Krieger, the architect who is pushing for more open space in the Seaport, thinks so, too. While Krieger envisions Dry Dock No. 4 as a recreational haven, exact details matter less to him. Rather, Krieger wants the city to create something that is a “purely public experience, not subject to private pressures.”
When I think about spectacular open space — whether it is the Greenway, Piers Park in East Boston, or the Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York — the foundation is public land. That’s the only way you can do anything ambitious.
The city has that opportunity in Dry Dock No. 4. The money is there; now it’s up to City Hall to supply a will and a way.