With Marty Walsh now a denizen of Washington, D.C., Don Chiofaro and his near mythic Harbor Garage project are in limbo once again.
Anyone who follows development in Boston knows that who’s mayor matters mightily when it comes to what gets built. That’s especially so for a high-profile site such as the Harbor Garage, which is critical to unlocking the potential of the downtown waterfront. During Tom Menino’s reign as mayor, Chiofaro’s plan to replace a decaying parking garage with a shimmering tower was dead on arrival with the two men always at odds. Then Walsh came along and just like that, the developer’s towering vision for a skyline-changing building on the waterfront had new life.
Now, Acting Mayor Kim Janey is facing pressure to show her hand on the project, as she is with so many other loose ends left by Walsh. And sorry, Don, but it seems another mayor does not want your 600-foot-tower on the water’s edge.
“We have heard the criticism that the proposal to redevelop the Harbor Garage site is too tall and too dense for its surroundings. I believe the proposal does too little to advance our shared objectives of increasing our waterfront’s resiliency, accessibility and vibrancy,” Janey said in a statement to the Globe. “Contentious development proposals such as this one warrant further scrutiny. The waterfront is one of our city’s most precious public assets, and this site deserves better.”
Love him or hate him, Chiofaro likes to think big, and for more than a decade, he has set his sights on the hulking Harbor Garage, an architectural atrocity he wants to replace with a skyscraper filled with offices, apartments, and retail. To build that high, Chiofaro agreed to a series of public benefits, including leaving half of the site open for access to the harbor.
Janey is not Chiofaro’s only problem. We’re in the middle of a mayoral race, and all the candidates expressed concern about the project and the process. Two of them — John Barros and Michelle Wu — told me they want a do-over.
“I support withdrawing this proposal and starting from a baseline that includes a long-term vision for our city,” Wu told me. “Under a new administration, in a moment that we are thinking about our economic recovery and the urgency of climate change and equity, we should have a full conversation.”
This isn’t the first time that Wu — an at-large city councilor who has been leading in two early polls— has raised concerns about the evolution of the waterfront. She does not believe a high rise belongs on the harbor’s edge, and she has little confidence that the city’s planning process can effectively address community concerns.
“We have seen time and again when we have a disjointed one off, parcel-by-parcel conversation,” said Wu, “we miss out on an opportunity to deliver the full potential of what access to the waterfront should look like.”
Barros, who served as the city’s chief economic officer under Walsh, was also adamant that a tower should not rise from the garage site.
“When I’m elected in November, we’re going to be rethinking that site,” Barros told me. “A tall tower should exist somewhere else, not on our waterfront.”
Barros said he would engineer a deal with Chiofaro to build something smaller that would satisfy the neighborhood’s parking needs and continue to house part of the ventilation system for the adjacent Harbor Towers residential complex (which, by the way, is not exactly subtle at about 400 feet tall).
Barros would seek to transfer Chiofaro’s development rights to another parcel, where a tower makes sense, citing how the city successfully negotiated to keep the Huntington Theatre by working with the developer. The fate of the historic theater was up in the air after its building was sold.
“We can be creative,” said Barros. “We can do that in Boston.”
While Barros envisions a low-slung structure to replace the Harbor Garage, he said it would be far from mundane. Think Sydney Opera House, a signature building that is only about 200 feet tall.
“It should be a wow statement in front of the aquarium,” he said.
This wouldn’t be the first time a land swap has been floated. In his first term, Walsh wondered whether City Hall could move to the site of the Harbor Garage and Chiofaro could build his tall tower where City Hall now stands. That idea, I’m told, was quickly shot down by various parties involved.
The future of the downtown waterfront has been top of mind after a recent Superior Court ruling that invalidated municipal harbor plans across the state. The Baker administration is seeking an administrative fix so projects can move forward but that won’t necessarily help Chiofaro. In recent weeks, most of the major mayoral candidates have separately taken a walking tour organized by Boston Harbor Now, the New England Aquarium, and Trustees of the Reservations.
In a letter to Janey last week, neighborhood leaders and abutters to the Harbor Garage — including the aquarium and Harbor Towers residents — asked her to reject Chiofaro’s application before the Boston Planning and Development Agency and request that he withdraw his proposal.
Janey, according to a city official, does not plan to reject Chiofaro’s application, but in her statement to the Globe she indicated her administration will work within the planning process “to help inform our options for the Harbor Garage site going forward.”
For Chiofaro, turning the Harbor Garage into the 44-story building he’s dubbed “Pinnacle” would be the capstone to the septuagenarian’s career. He is best known for developing the International Place complex in the Financial District in the 1980s, a pair of distinctive ― if not universally loved ― towers.
“We are committed to a more equitable, accessible and resilient future for Boston, and we have long believed that the redevelopment of the Harbor Garage is an essential element of achieving these objectives along the Downtown Waterfront,” he said in a statement. “There is no limit to what together we can achieve when all of the passion inspired by this special place is channeled toward seizing this opportunity to realize a common vision.”
Eighteen months ago, things seemed to be falling into place for Chiofaro more than a decade after he partnered with Prudential Real Estate to buy the garage for $153 million. In early 2020, the city’s formal review of the project was just getting underway when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt.
Today the opposition — namely the aquarium, Conservation Law Foundation, and Harbor Towers residents ― feel emboldened. They consider the recent court ruling an opportunity to sink the project as currently conceived. The racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder and the pandemic has also reshaped thinking on equity and whether Boston needs more office space at a time when the hybrid workplace and working from home look like they’re here to stay.
Other mayoral candidates — City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Andrea Campbell, and state Representative Jon Santiago ― did not go as far to say that the Chiofaro proposal should be rejected, but they all raised concerns about the community input process.
Essaibi George wrote in a letter to the BPDA in October that she was worried about the impact on residents of the North End and Chinatown, and whether it would be “welcoming and accessible to the entire city.”
In an interview, Essaibi George said the Harbor Garage site will likely be redeveloped, but she believes the virtual public meetings necessitated by the pandemic shortchanged residents’ ability to have a say in what gets built.
“We need to take a moment to step back and think about what we are doing,” said Essaibi George.
Santiago described the current process as “flawed.” He doesn’t want the city to repeat the mistakes of the Seaport District, which failed to create a sense of community by not building a school or spaces that would appeal to families and people of color.
The waterfront needs a cohesive plan, added Santiago, because “piecemeal . . . zoning isn’t doing the city justice.”
Campbell, in a statement, said the city needs to understand how the Chiofaro proposal might affect future projects along the harbor.
“What I’ve heard from stakeholders, including on a waterfront tour recently, is that the city lacks a strategic vision for our waterfront and needs leadership that will create an intentional plan and hold all including developers accountable to it,” she said.
Here’s what gets lost in the internecine debate over the waterfront: Everyone agrees the Harbor Garage is an eyesore that must go.
But what gets in the way is Chiofaro’s ego, which is as large as his towers, and the opposition forces that believe they can dictate every last detail of a private development.
It’s time to find a way to achieve peace ― and allow progress ― on the waterfront. Right now, things are looking up only for the lawyers who will get rich from more years of inaction and squabbling.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.