The Boston Redevelopment Authority was so close to realizing its vision of a restaurant on the tip of Long Wharf that you could almost smell the fried clams.
For nearly five years, BRA officials had fought a group of determined North End residents who had raised objections in administrative hearings and state courts.
The BRA spent close to a quarter of a million dollars on legal bills. Last year it finally won a Supreme Judicial Court decision almost certainly clearing the way for a private company to build Doc’s Long Wharf restaurant on the dramatic public space jutting into Boston Harbor.
But it seems that BRA officials, in their zeal to promote waterfront dining, failed to take into account an old map outlining the edge of Long Wharf as protected space. According to a 1980s agreement, the BRA had promised to forever preserve it for outdoor recreation.
A retired National Park Service manager, reading about the controversy in the Globe, remembered the map and made a call. Sure enough, the Park Service found the 1980s map in a federal archive in Philadelphia, prompting a state judge to put the restaurant plans on hold in late December and leaving the BRA with ketchup on its face.
“The strange manner in which the [newly discovered map] came to light requires this court” to allow the map into evidence “in the interests of justice,” Suffolk Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Fahey wrote in voiding the restaurant’s state environmental permit and calling for the BRA to reapply, this time using the correct map.
Opponents of the proposed restaurant, many of them neighbors untrained in the law who spent countless hours preparing legal briefs to counter the BRA, said Fahey’s ruling probably settles a debate that should never have begun in the first place. “To us, discovery of the right map means we definitely should win,” said Sanjoy Mahajan, an MIT electrical engineering professor, a former neighbor of the site, and a restaurant opponent. “We think this undercuts the entire BRA case. We only wish it had come to light earlier.”
But the BRA appears determined to plow on. It requested court permission to conduct its own investigation into the map, describing it in court filings as a mere “sketch” and as a “roughly drawn rendering” made by “an unknown individual . . . allegedly found” in archives.
BRA spokeswoman Susan Elsbree said: “We are following the process in good faith, and we will get to the bottom of this. Our mission is to get people to enjoy the waterfront, and not let a few neighbors trump the public interest.”
The BRA long ago selected Michael Conlon, owner of Eat Drink Laugh Restaurant Group, to develop Doc’s, envisioned as a moderately priced restaurant and bar with indoor and outdoor seating. BRA officials confirmed that Conlon’s company is still their choice to build Doc’s. A new round of litigation over the restaurant seems likely even as federal and state environmental officials vouch for the authenticity of the newly discovered map.
“I don’t know what map they were using before, but I provided them with the one we have on record for that project,” Jack W. Howard, a National Park Service manager, said in an interview.
The new map, pulled from National Park Service files, shows that the proposed restaurant lies squarely within the bounds of a park financed under the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Federal law prohibits such restaurants in these federally funded parks with few exceptions. Apparently no one had previously asked the Park Service for a copy of the map.
The backdrop of the legal back-and-forth is storied Long Wharf, which dates to the early 18th century and is considered the oldest continuously operated wharf in the country. By the 1960s, Long Wharf and its surroundings, including Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, had fallen into serious disrepair, victims of a maritime economy gone bust. Soon the BRA, established at about the same time to stimulate development in blighted areas, took a large swath of the waterfront, including Long Wharf, by eminent domain. That helped clear the way for the New England Aquarium and the Boston Long Wharf Marriott hotel, among other developments.
Edward Rizzotto was a young National Park Service manager in the 1980s when a deal was struck for the federal government to provide almost $1 million to clean up the tip of the wharf. He says — and documents later uncovered by restaurant opponents bear this out — that the BRA agreed to record an easement guaranteeing it to be open space for 99 years.
“This was always intended as public open space in perpetuity,” Rizzotto, 70, said during an interview on the park site.
The park reaches into wind-swept Boston Harbor, a 35,000-square-foot plaza paved with granite flagstones, with a bronze plaque proclaiming Long Wharf Park and bearing the BRA’s name. On one side of the site is an open air brick pavilion that provides shade for summertime picnickers.
More than 25 years passed before the BRA decided in 2006 that more people would enjoy one of the city’s premier outdoor spots if the pavilion were converted into a restaurant and tavern. Agency officials envisioned indoor and outdoor tables, live entertainment, takeout service, and food and alcohol until 1 a.m.
When the BRA first proposed the restaurant, it apparently produced no map and made no mention of the National Park Service or the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But after the Department of Environmental Protection issued an initial permit for the restaurant, neighbors challenged it, arguing, among other things, that the bronze park sign affixed to the park flag pole by the BRA proved the site was protected park land.
State environmental officials found a map that seemed to divide Long Wharf Park in half, running lengthwise, according to BRA officials. The BRA and the environmental agency asserted that only one side of the line was protected park. They said that the side including the pavilion, where they wanted to put a restaurant, had no special protection from development.
The neighbors continued to fight, arguing that the restaurant plan still required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before there could be a change in public open space.
After years of hearings and a pile of legal briefs, a story on the restaurant battle published on the front page of the Globe on Oct. 10, 2012, caught the eye of Rizzotto, he said. He wondered why the restaurant plan had gotten so far when he recalled that the entire area was protected. Rizzotto eventually contacted Howard, the National Park Service manager, with whom he once worked. A search of the archives dredged up the one-page map now central to the case.
By then, the case had been argued before the Supreme Judicial Court but had not been decided. The map circulated among the Park Service, the Environmental Protection Department, the BRA, and restaurant opponents, but no one informed the court of its discovery. Fahey, who ruled on remaining state issues in the restaurant fight nine months after the SJC decision, noted that the BRA did not alert the SJC “that the material it was then considering may be incorrect.”
Mahajan, the MIT engineer and one of the opponents, said he is uncertain how the map showing a line through the middle of the park wound up being considered official, and the BRA and environmental protection officials are not commenting. But he said records he has reviewed show the dividing line may have reflected a construction zone set up for repairs of one side of the wharf in the late 1980s.
“If they had kept their files in good order . . . maybe they would have found the map years ago and avoided all this,” Mahajan said. “Maybe the money they spent on lawyers could have been used instead to make one of the city’s most beautiful parks even more spectacular.”
Sean Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.