For more than a century, the piers that stud East Boston’s shoreline have rusted and crumbled, left as a reminders of a waterfront that once teemed with shipyards, factories, and trans-Atlantic ferries.
Developers have long eyed the seaside property for apartment buildings and condominium towers with commanding views of the city skyline. Five projects waiting on the drawing board would add more than 1,800 housing units, along with restaurants, shops, and health clubs.
But private financing has yet to materialize, leaving the plans to languish. Seeking to reinvigorate the projects, Mayor Thomas M. Menino took aim at East Boston’s stalled development in a speech yesterday to the region’s business leaders that emphasized the city’s intrinsic connection to its shoreline.
Menino called for a new municipal harbor plan and described using the waterfront as an engine of job creation and economic growth.
The mayor announced that the city is ready to build roads, reinforce seawalls, and make other infrastructure investments to reduce costs for private developers. The administration also plans to build a floating pier at the end of Lewis Street as a part of a broader effort to enhance the city’s water transit.
The intended message from the speech was clear: The city plans to make a significant commitment to the East Boston waterfront with the hope that private developers will do the same.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,’’ said Lisa Capogreco, 37, an East Boston resident who has lived in the neighborhood her entire life and has worked on plans for the waterfront since the 1990s. “I’m really excited. But I have to say, it’s also disheartening that nothing’s happening yet.’’
Just a few years ago, East Boston seemed poised for a building boom, but the recession dried up financing and projects went idle. The same fate played out across the harbor on the South Boston waterfront during the economic downturn. Yet the boom there has picked up steam recently.
“Economic uncertainty has stalled progress’’ in East Boston, Menino said in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “But I believe focus, collective action, and investment by the city can jump-start it.’’
In South Boston, Menino has aggressively promoted the waterfront as the city’s new Innovation District, luring small biotech companies and a major pharmaceutical firm. The area is vast and includes labs, research space, and office buildings, in addition to new housing and restaurants.
By contrast, the proposed development in East Boston would largely be made up of housing, with stores and restaurants on the ground floors.
Philip DeNormandie, a developer who is about to launch an East Boston project at the Hodge Boiler Works that has been more than a decade in coming, said that when work in the area “takes off, it’s going to explode.’’
“Just the fact that it’s on [Menino’s] radar is a major plus for East Boston and for us,’’ said DeNormandie.
The Menino administration has proposed creating an East Boston Waterfront Development District, a designation that will allow the city to make upfront investments in roads and other infrastructure to cut the cost of private construction and encourage development. The city would finance the work, in anticipation of an increase in property tax revenue when the residential buildings and commercial storefronts have been completed.
“This is reclaiming land that had become derelict and was not contributing to the community,’’ said Kairos Shen, the city’s chief planner, who works at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “It’s essentially expanding the neighborhood.’’
Menino also pledged $1 million a year to enhance the city’s water transportation with a long-term goal of creating a robust network of shuttles or ferries between waterfront neighborhoods. To pay for the initiative, Menino has proposed a $1 to $2 surcharge in fees paid by cruise ship passengers, a hike that would require state legislation or cooperation from the Massachusetts Port Authority.
The mayor will also push for a new “retail and cultural entry point’’ into Boston for the 300,000 cruise ship passengers who visit the city each year at Massport’s Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in South Boston. He proposed using a portion of the Bronstein Center to create a sort-of welcome hall with shops and restaurants.
Massport declined for a second straight day yesterday to discuss Menino’s proposals because the agency said it did not have specifics, according to spokesman Matthew Brelis, who attended Menino’s speech. “I think it better to hear directly from the mayor’s office than to do it through the newspaper,’’ Brelis said.
The city hopes to proceed with urgency. A neighborhood meeting will be held in early January to discuss what specific projects should be included in East Boston Waterfront Development District. Officials hope to have the floating ferry pier completed by summer 2012. Proposals will be sought to add or improve ferries or water shuttles.
“It’s East Boston time,’’ said Senator Anthony Petruccelli, who represents the neighborhood. “I think the investment and encouragement by the mayor and the BRA will help move the ball over the goal line.’’