Boston has a chance to turn the Fort Point Channel neighborhood into the waterfront the Seaport District has failed to become. Can the city deliver, or will we see, yet again, more broken promises?
The stakes are higher now as the opportunity to create public space — think expansive green parks and basketball courts — dwindle as more of the South Boston waterfront gets developed. The Boston Planning & Development Agency — charged with overseeing the design of the district — is mindful of not repeating the mistakes of the Seaport, a corporate enclave with scant diversity and pocket parks.
The Seaport may have emerged as a magnet for some the country’s most innovative companies, from Amazon to Vertex, but that is not what makes Boston special. It is the creation of shared spaces, beautiful and humanizing, from the Esplanade to the Public Garden, the Emerald Necklace to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, that elevates cities to greatness — as both places to live and to do business.
Tensions over how to create inclusive space on prime real estate are once again bubbling to the surface after the city recently released a draft of an updated open space plan for about 100 acres along the Fort Point Channel, an old commercial waterway that separates South Boston from downtown. This comes as one of the city’s major developers, Related Beal, goes through a permitting process that is raising questions about whether the massive buildings planned will eat into and cast shadows on promised parkland.
The city’s ambitious vision is worth fighting for: Imagine popping out of South Station, walking across the Summer Street bridge, and stepping into a waterfront park connecting a series of green spaces that stretches from the channel’s edge toward the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. Each park will have its own personality: One will feature an outdoor amphitheater and interactive fountain; another will have grills and picnic tables; one will be anchored by art installations; and another will have a basketball court, multi-use playing fields, and a dog park.
But let’s not kid ourselves about how difficult this will be to pull off and whether everyone can or will stick to the plan. The city will have to wrangle agreements from three different property owners — Related Beal, National Development, and the Postal Service — each with varying time frames for development.
Developers have landed in adjacent Fort Point, which is viewed as a natural extension of the Seaport for office and lab space. The Fort Point neighborhood historically had been home to artists in industrial brick lofts, but it has since been taken over by startups and big employers alike, with high-end restaurants to boot. When General Electric relocated to Boston, it notably put its headquarters in Fort Point.
To achieve a more inclusive waterfront, BPDA is proposing to increase the amount of required open space throughout Fort Point from about five acres to nine acres. But even that modest target is questionable based on how development can play out in this town: The best laid-out plans for open space are often negotiated down to a patch of grass hemmed in by glossy towers. We don’t have to look too far for Exhibit A: Fan Pier.
At the heart of the debate has always been how to define open space. If a developer gives up land for public streets and sidewalks, should that count? Not if it is greatness we are after.
It’s not just concerned neighbors making that case. The Boston Parks and Recreation Department is wary of developers’ fungible and self-interested math and worries about a potential 25 percent reduction in open space. In a strongly worded letter to the BPDA on Feb. 5, one city department urged another to ensure that open space along Fort Point Channel really is open space that people will use for recreation, not some sleight of hand involving sidewalks and alleyways.
“The significant increase in open space between the 2006 plan and the 2020 plan warrants further analysis,” wrote Carrie Marsh Dixon, executive secretary of the Boston Parks and Recreation Commission. “A visual comparison of the plans and tables makes it difficult to understand how the open space is now being measured.”
Another important property owner to watch is the US Postal Service. The post office, in addition to having a large facility along the channel, uses the area for parking. The post office has been under pressure from the state to relocate from the channel to make way for a big expansion of neighboring South Station. And if the post office sells some of its other holdings, too, the next owner would be bound by the open space requirements in the 100 acres plan.
The BPDA is proposing to reconfigure smaller parks planned for land owned by the postal service to create a three-acre park that will feature basketball court and other fields, an active space designed to draw people from all over the city. If you know the history of the post office on the South Boston waterfront, you know not to count on them to do anything in a timely fashion.
The back-and-forth talks between USPS and the state have gone on for more than two decades now. At one point, Massachusetts officials offered to help build a new facility in another part of South Boston, plus $350 million in cash to the money-losing federal agency. The post office said no, and this was under the Obama administration.
Although the postal service was part of the original 2006 drafting of the 100 acres plan, the city parks commission in its letter to BPDA questions whether the federal agency is truly on board with the current open space proposal.
“It is unclear to what degree the USPS participated in the current open space planning; whether it provided written agreement to the change of the plan; if it has committed to provide acreage for open space; or how this open space will be guaranteed should the USPS sell the property,” wrote Dixon.
And if the post office stays put? The only way we get to enjoy this luscious park is from the glossy renderings of a plan.
Rich McGuinness, BPDA’s deputy director for climate change and environmental planning, acknowledges some shifting as development plans firm up, but said there has not been any reduction of open space. He is adamant the BPDA will not let that happen.
“We don’t want to erode any further the open space,” said McGuinness, who has had a role in planning the South Boston waterfront for 25 years.
McGuinness insists the BPDA is on top of the issue; the agency, for example, recently asked Related Beal, which is proposing about 1 million square feet across three new buildings, for assurances that its project is not encroaching on a waterfront park that is part of the 100 acres plan.
“We think it’s a beautiful vision,” McGuinness said of the 100 acres plan. “It’s not intended to let the developer off the hook.”
For its part, Related Beal contends it is going above and beyond city requirements for open space at its Channelside project, which will feature housing, office and lab space, and retail uses, as well as nearly two acres of parks and a completion of the South Bay bike trail, a three-and-a-half-mile route that will go through Roxbury, the South End, and South Boston.
“Channelside will help reimagine the channel in a way that benefits the entire community and truly opens the waterfront to everyone in Boston,” said Stephen Faber, an executive vice president at Related Beal, in a statement.
Here we have a case in which everyone is uttering the right words, but in the rough-and-tumble world of development, do you really believe they will stick to the plan?
It’s understandable that residents in Fort Point are nervous, given what unfolded in the Seaport, where developers got the upper hand as projects struggled to get off the ground a decade ago.
“We are trying to hold everyone accountable for basically living up to what we agreed to,” said Tom Ready, a board member of the Fort Point Neighborhood Association, which represents residents of the South Boston waterfront.
This is not a classic NIMBY standoff. Developers may be bringing in tall buildings, but their projects also help pay for the parks and much-needed infrastructure to protect the area from rising sea levels.
“The development brings benefit,” Ready added. “We recognize it.”
The city of Boston has a huge opportunity to succeed in Fort Point where the Seaport has failed. We can do this — we have before. Parts of the East Boston waterfront are magnificent with green spaces and soccer fields framed by skyline views. South Boston even has some models to emulate: Martin’s Park is a one-acre oasis with playgrounds and cherry trees, as is A Street Park.
What it will come down to is how hard we are willing to fight for the best Boston can be.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.