Last week, a Superior Court judge issued a ruling that could stop Don Chiofaro from building a 600-foot tower on the edge of the Boston waterfront.
Of course, anyone who knows Chiofaro also knows he’s unlikely to let that be the final word on his dream project. He’s as stubborn and obsessed as ever with his vision for the city. And given the shadow of itself that Boston is right now, maybe that’s not so bad.
Chiofaro has been fighting for a grand and often controversial vision of Boston since the early 1980s, when he first pitched a plan to develop the tall towers that turned into International Place. He has survived downturns and recessions and a slew of opponents who don’t like his style and ego — and especially dislike his quest to build a huge skyscraper on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage, near the New England Aquarium.
Local residents, conservation activists, and most famously, Mayor Thomas M. Menino did all they could to thwart that project. During the subsequent tenure of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Chiofaro won over city planners and got approval from the state in 2018. But the Conservation Law Foundation and residents of the Harbor Towers condominium complex filed a lawsuit against it. And last week Superior Court Judge Brian Davis ruled that the state Department of Environmental Protection wrongly delegated sign-off on the downtown municipal harbor plan, which includes Chiofaro’s tower, to the secretary of energy and environmental affairs. That rendered “null and void” the green light given to Chiofaro, Davis wrote. In a statement, The Chiofaro Company said it’s reviewing the decision and noted that “it’s not a ruling on the merits of the Harbor Garage or any other project.”
I’m not a fan of Chiofaro’s cloud-scraping waterfront tower. Yet I do admire his tenacity and continued belief in Boston, at a time when cities need believers. A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic drove white-collar workers from office buildings to home offices, and most have not returned. In December, The Wall Street Journal called Boston a “pandemic ghost town.” In March, Boston’s downtown office buildings were seeing about a 12 percent occupancy, the Boston Business Journal reported. Meanwhile, new mixed-use projects valued at over $1 billion are planned or currently underway for downtown Boston, according to the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District. Any sign of faith in urban life should be welcome.
The 34-block area covered by the Business Improvement District doesn’t include the waterfront. But when asked about the court ruling that affects Chiofaro’s project, BID chief executive Rosemarie Sansone said, “On face value, this doesn’t seem to be the time to stand in the way of a major project moving forward. These projects provide much-needed jobs and the signal of confidence that Boston is moving forward at this critical time. It is not just that Don is a believer; he is investing millions of dollars in our city at a time when we need it the most.”
Beyond his company’s statement on the court ruling, Chiofaro had nothing more to say. However, regarding the post-pandemic future of the city, he said, via e-mail, “This is not the first time in my career that naysayers have played taps over the future of Boston. In fact, it is the fourth or fifth time, and every time they have been wrong. They will be again.”
The judge’s ruling affects more than Chiofaro. A 25-story hotel on the site of James Hook & Co. Lobster is covered by the same downtown harbor plan. It doesn’t seem fair for developers to negotiate with the city for years and then find out all that time, energy, and money mean nothing because one state entity wrongly deferred decision-making to another. It’s an especially bad message to send at a time when Boston is trying to regain its mojo after a year of COVID-19 lockdowns.
With Walsh gone to Washington as President Biden’s labor secretary, Chiofaro will now be dealing with his third mayor on this project. That says something about the city’s long, winding, and arbitrary approval process, and it also says something about Chiofaro’s conviction. Right now, Boston needs as much of that as it can get.