Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s vision of transforming the East Boston waterfront with new homes, shops, restaurants, and public spaces is drawing a largely enthusiastic response from residents and neighborhood leaders.
If anyone can spur real growth along a section studded with crumbling piers and faded promises, many believe, it is the city’s mayor.
“I think it’s fantastic,’’ said Diane Modica, a lifelong resident, city councilor from 1994-1998, and a vice president of the East Boston Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, people in East Boston have been waiting years to see the development of the waterfront, and there’s been a lot of stops and starts over the last several years that have been very discouraging.’’
In Menino’s annual speech before the Boston Chamber of Commerce several weeks ago, he outlined a plan to improve water transit by building a new marine terminal near Maverick Square and announced that the Boston Redevelopment Authority would pursue the creation of an East Boston Waterfront Development District that would allow the city to invest in infrastructure improvements.
Menino’s goal is to help kick-start several projects proposed for the neighborhood but never built because of a lack of financing or other roadblocks.
“Economic uncertainly has stalled progress here,’’ Menino said in his speech. “But I believe focus, collective action, and investment by the city can jump-start it.’’
He cited five waterfront projects and four farther inland that together, according to estimates, represent the potential for more than $500 million worth of investment, 1,400 construction jobs, and 300 permanent jobs.
For more than a century, East Boston’s waterfront bustled with shipyards, warehouses, and factories. A center of the region’s clipper ship industry in the mid-1800s, it was later home to a port for Liverpool-bound ships from the famed Cunard Line. From 1920 to 1954, tens of thousands of immigrants passed through the East Boston Immigration Station.
But by the 1960s, jet travel and the interstate highway system had devastated the maritime shipping industry. Piers that had been a vital part of the city’s commercial life were left to rot. Today, more than half a mile of waterfront — with stunning views of the downtown skyline — is overgrown with weeds and cut off from the neighborhood by rusty fences.
Many residents feel it is time that East Boston got a break, after decades of watching other neighborhoods and sections of the city’s waterfront redeveloped.
“I represent East Boston, Charlestown, the North End,’’ said Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, 52. “And I look at those two [other] neighborhoods, and I love how their waterfronts look. And I look at the East Boston waterfront, and I get disgusted and frustrated because nothing’s been happening all these years. And I see what’s going on in South Boston, and like, why not us?’’
Many residents pointed to the revitalization of the South Boston Seaport, which Menino designated the city’s Innovation District in January 2010. The seaport was already on an upswing, thanks to such attractions as the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and the Institute of Contemporary Art.
But the city’s efforts to attract technology companies brought in 90 new firms employing 2,800 workers, according to the BRA. The district now boasts high-end stores and restaurants such as Legal Harborside, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals is building an $800 million headquarters there.
Many believe Menino can bring a similar vitality to East Boston.
“I think if anybody can, he has obviously the wherewithal, aside from the bully pulpit,’’ said Clark Moulaison, 52, executive director of East Boston Main Streets. “He’s the kind of mayor who can actually get these various developers together along with Massport and individual property owners to move forward on it.’’
Some residents worry that high-end condos will lead to the neighborhood’s working class and immigrant families being priced out, but most believe Menino’s commitment to low-income housing will ensure a sufficient stock of affordable units.
“I don’t think we’re going to be like South Boston, which I think has sort of gone up in a flame of gentrification,’’ said Philip Giffee, 64, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood of Affordable Housing. “You’re already seeing some price increases in the Jeffries Point section [of East Boston] . . . but they’re not extreme.’’
Others suspect that Menino timed his proposal to help pacify or distract a vocal group of residents who oppose a resort casino at Suffolk Downs, a proposal Menino supports.
“A lot of people really feel like this is just a way to try to get the casino, or at least to diminish opposition to a casino,’’ said Neenah Estrella-Luna, a seven-year resident of the Eagle Hill district.
John Walkey, 41, an Eagle Hill homeowner, said he is pleased the waterfront is getting the attention but wonders why it is coming now. He is not sure it is connected to the push for a casino, but he believes there is more to the proposal than meets the eye. “The question becomes, when is the [other] shoe going to drop?’’ Walkey asked.
But Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said the mayor is concerned only with spurring development of long-gestating plans that could enhance the neighborhood. “It has nothing to do with the casino,’’ she said. “It has everything to do with economic development of the harbor.’’
She suggested that the push to increase water transportation among the city’s neighborhoods was driven by the growth along the South Boston Seaport and the need to provide more accessible housing for the increasing number of technology workers there.
Burned by past experiences, such as the taking of Wood Island Park in 1969 to expand Logan International Airport, most East Boston residents interviewed agree that the path toward any new development must include careful planning that involves input from the public.
“Execution is going to be the key component,’’ said Melissa Tyler, a 12-year resident who serves on the East Boston Project Advisory Committee.Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @jeremycfox. For more coverage of Boston’s neighborhoods and surrounding towns, go to boston.com/yourtown.