All five major mayoral candidates have criticized a proposal for a 600-foot tower that would go up next to the New England Aquarium. But right now, only one is in position to actually stop it.
That would be Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who is facing increasing pressure to withdraw and redo a zoning plan that allows for the tower’s construction.
The Conservation Law Foundation sent a letter to Janey last week, urging her to jettison Boston’s Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan, the product of years of negotiation under her predecessor, Martin J. Walsh. The environmental group wants city officials to start anew with discussions about what should be allowed along 42 acres of downtown waterfront that stretch from Long Wharf to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge. The letter was co-signed by six other local environmental groups.
The harbor plan is crucial for developer Don Chiofaro’s long-held vision for a 600-foot skyscraper on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage, because the plan supersedes rules for state-regulated tidelands that otherwise limit structures built a similar distance from the water’s edge to about one quarter of that height. The plan’s fate is also emerging as a flashpoint in the city’s mayoral campaign, as candidates address issues of large-scale development on the waterfront.
The long-simmering controversy has reached this stage now because of two lawsuits to overturn the waterfront zoning plan. In April, a Suffolk Superior Court judge sided with CLF and residents of neighboring Harbor Towers, tossing out the plan on the grounds it was improperly approved in 2018 by then-state environmental secretary Matt Beaton, a political appointee, instead of through regulatory channels at the Department of Environmental Protection, as state law requires. (The state is currently appealing the judge’s ruling.)
The ruling also potentially endangered 16 other municipal harbor plans along the state’s coastline, all approved in similar fashion over the years. This summer, the Department of Environmental Protection is revising its waterfront regulations to ensure the various zoning plans remain in effect following the judge’s ruling.
That has created an opportunity for opponents of the controversial Boston plan to argue it should be revisited. Last week, the three other city councilors running for mayor — Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell, and Annissa Essaibi George — registered their discontent with DEP. They also raised concerns at a candidates’ forum at the Aquarium, as did Walsh’s former economic development chief John Barros, who is also running for mayor. (Janey did not attend.)
In the letter to Janey, CLF argues that she should act decisively, by withdrawing the harbor plan before the state comment period ends on Friday. The group points out that Janey herself told the Globe in May that the garage project does too little to improve the waterfront’s “resiliency, accessibility and vibrancy.” Now is the time, the environmental group said, for Janey to put those words into action, and as mayor, she has the authority to pull the plug.
For now, Janey is giving no sign that she will withdraw the zoning plan. She deflected a Globe reporter’s question about the issue at an unrelated event on Wednesday. A spokesperson later provided the following statement: “Equitable access to a resilient waterfront is a top priority for Mayor Janey. As with all new development projects, the Mayor supports rigorous evaluation and the same level of scrutiny that projects have undergone throughout every neighborhood in our city. The City looks forward to continuing the conversation to ensure a public process as this moves forward.”
One person who definitely supports keeping the zoning plan intact is Don Chiofaro.
His company issued a statement Wednesday pointing to the five years of “thoughtful and inclusive planning” that went into the waterfront plan, including input from owners of all properties within the 42 acres. The plan, the company said, embraces the city’s objectives of resiliency, accessibility, and equity, and those goals can be incorporated in the design of the office and residential tower as it moves through city and state review.
Starting over now, the developer said, “is simply inconsistent with the urgency to act on the critical issues of climate change, diversity, and inclusion.”
But the plan’s critics say this is a matter of precedent — that allowing such a big tower in regulated tidelands will spur other oversized projects. They also worry about a 300-foot tower proposal that the new zoning allows at James Hook & Co.’s site along Fort Point Channel, in a place where CLF says state rules would otherwise limit buildings to 55 feet. The state’s municipal harbor plan program is designed to provide some flexibility, but CLF argues this one, as approved, simply goes too far.
“It has never been about just the Harbor Garage for us,” said Deanna Moran, the group’s director of environmental planning. “We don’t want to eliminate the [municipal harbor plan] program. We understand the value of giving cities and towns some flexibility when it comes to planning their waterfronts. We just want to rethink the program for the 21st century and strike the right balance between public and private interests.”
That rethinking should put a much greater emphasis on preparing the waterfront for the effects of climate change such as rising tides and dangerous storms, said Vikki Spruill, president of the New England Aquarium. Like CLF, Aquarium officials would like to see a smaller project at the Harbor Garage than what Chiofaro has in mind.
“The false dichotomy is that it’s either a 600-foot tower or a parking garage,” Spruill said. “There are a million other scenarios that could improve that area.”
The Harborkeepers was among the environmental groups that signed the letter to Janey. That organization is focused on East Boston, not downtown, but executive director Magdalena Ayed said it was important to sign on because of the implications for other waterfront areas. She said she separately asked Janey and a top aide of hers about pulling the plan last week, and was unsatisfied with the responses she received.
“If we don’t do anything, developers will continue to run the show,” Ayed said. “If you put a stop to this one, and you send a strong message to development and power and money in Boston, it’s going to change that narrative.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.