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Environmental groups criticize potential development of Widett Circle because of flooding issues

Letter from the Charles River Watershed Association follows Globe report that industrial area could be home to a new Amazon warehouse

This 2014 file photo shows Widett Circle (in the center) and the city's public works yard.
This 2014 file photo shows Widett Circle (in the center) and the city's public works yard.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Environmental groups are pressing Boston officials to address flooding problems in an industrial area between South Boston and the Southeast Expressway that has been eyed as a potential home for an Amazon warehouse.

A coalition of more than 15 environmental advocacy organizations, led by the Charles River Watershed Association, sent a letter to Mayor Martin J. Walsh and members of the City Council on Tuesday, expressing concerns about the potential for tidal flooding in the low-lying Widett Circle area and the adjacent Boston public works yard on Frontage Road.

The trigger for their letter was a report in the Boston Globe earlier in March that said much of the roughly 25-acre Widett Circle, home to meat and seafood processors and distributors for decades, could be redeveloped for use as an Amazon warehouse. With its close proximity to downtown Boston, Widett became the subject of developer interest after it was the centerpiece of the city’s aborted bid to host the 2024 Olympics roughly six years ago.

In their letter to city officials, the environmental groups say allowing private development at the Frontage Road and Widett Circle properties would squander a rare opportunity to implement resilience and flood protection measures that could be critical to the city in a time of rising seas. They write that the public works yard has already experienced drainage issues, and this area could be regularly flooded “a mere two decades into the useful life of any development,” based on the city’s projections for sea level rise.

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“We have to be thinking differently about our built environment and how we treat water,” said Emily Norton, the Charles River Watershed Association’s executive director. “We can’t just direct it away and assume everything is going to be fine . . . We’re hoping to slow things down so there could be a public process to help people understand the science and what’s coming and look at options that respect nature and respect what climate change is bringing.”

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The influential Conservation Law Foundation is among the groups that have joined with the watershed association. Deanna Moran, CLF’s director of environmental planning, said the area is already prone to floods. Redeveloping it, rather than building an open space with permeable surfaces, would “fly in the face of the city’s proclaimed goals for climate resilience and green space.”

Able Co., a development firm that acquired control of nearly 20 acres at Widett last year from the New Boston Food Market cooperative, issued a statement saying it’s aware of the concerns raised by the Charles River Watershed Association and plans to take them into consideration.

“We have interest from and are considering a range of uses at Widett Circle, including light industrial, life sciences and transit,” Able said in its statement. “We are currently studying what is feasible to achieve at the site, including addressing environmental issues, and we look forward to continuing to work with city and state decision-makers, elected officials and the local neighborhoods as our plans advance.”

A spokeswoman for the Boston Planning & Development Agency issued a statement saying any future development at Widett or on Frontage Road would undergo a comprehensive public review that prioritizes climate resiliency, including consideration of “green infrastructure solutions.” She noted that the city is not currently exploring the disposition of its Frontage Road land, and there is not currently a development proposal before the BPDA for its review. Widett was identified in the city’s “Imagine Boston 2030″ plan as an expanded neighborhood because of its central location and potential to knit together surrounding communities, she said, but climate resiliency will be a guiding principle as city officials weigh its future.

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This is not the first time the watershed association and other organizations raised concerns about flooding in the area. They did so in late 2018, when the Walsh administration was taking steps to divest the 18-acre public works yard, including the tow lot, along Frontage Road. The city-owned land is immediately north of Widett Circle and not far from the Fort Point Channel.

The property had once been seen as a potential place for the Kraft Group’s long-discussed stadium proposal for the New England Revolution. City officials eventually put the redevelopment of the public works yard on hold.




Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.