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Citing equity, climate concerns, Janey scraps harbor zoning plan

Move will likely sideline controversial waterfront skyscraper for months or more

Developer Don Chiofaro has proposed a 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage.
Developer Don Chiofaro has proposed a 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage.TOMORROW AB/KPF

Acting Mayor Kim Janey dealt developer Don Chiofaro’s long-planned waterfront skyscraper a massive setback on Thursday, by withdrawing a plan for development along a stretch of Boston Harbor that would have allowed construction of the 600-foot tower steps from the New England Aquarium.

Janey has been under increasing pressure in recent weeks from environmental groups and her rivals in the mayor’s race to pull Boston’s Downtown Municipal Harbor Plan from consideration by state environmental regulators. On Thursday, she announced she was doing exactly that.

In a press conference at City Hall, Janey said the plan, crafted four years ago after lengthy negotiations overseen by Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration, did not adequately address issues of equity and climate resilience. In particular, she focused on threats from sea level rise and extreme weather, an issue that has grown in urgency since the harbor plan was approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency in 2017. And she said any new development must ensure the waterfront is more welcoming to all city residents.

“If we do not act urgently to mitigate climate change, we will see more of these extreme weather events,” Janey said. “As we move our city forward, we must embed resilience, equity, and justice into the planning of our waterfront. Like our green space, our waterfront is one of our most valuable assets.”

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The harbor plan sets out some building rules and restrictions for a 42-acre section of the waterfront, running from Long Wharf to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge. Its key feature for Chiofaro’s much-debated tower proposal would override state rules that cap the height of buildings in state regulated tidelands, such as those along the downtown waterfront. Without the new zoning allowed through the harbor plan, Chiofaro would essentially be limited to a building of roughly 150 feet, a height he says would make the project economically unfeasible.

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In reaction to Janey’s decision, a spokeswoman for Chiofaro Co. said: “We have been, and continue to be committed to this city, this neighborhood and this investment. The urgency for action is undeniable. We welcome conversations with all who are interested in cooperating on a viable path to a more resilient, equitable, accessible and economically vibrant Downtown Waterfront.”

Chiofaro wants to build a nearly 900,000-square-foot office and residential tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage along Atlantic Avenue, which his firm and the real estate arm of Prudential Financial bought in 2007 for $153 million. He has pitched it as a chance to replace a forbidding concrete structure with a landmark addition to the city’s skyline. But critics say the project risks setting a precedent for allowing massive development along the waterfront.

The harbor plan was thrown into question in April when a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled that state officials did not follow proper steps when they approved the Boston proposal in 2018.

That ruling came in response to lawsuits brought by the Conservation Law Foundation and residents of the nearby Harbor Towers that sought to block the harbor plan and Chiofaro’s tower. But the ruling also potentially endangered 16 other municipal harbor plans along the state’s coastline, which had been approved in a similar fashion over the years. So, even though the Baker administration is appealing the judge’s ruling, the Department of Environmental Protection is now revising its waterfront rules to ensure these harbor plans comply with the law.

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Janey said she asked state officials to remove the Boston harbor plan from that DEP process, effectively giving it back to the city to revise. (State officials typically defer to local authorities on questions like this.) That would likely push the process well beyond the mayoral election in November. Janey has expressed concerns about the size of Chiofaro’s tower, as have all four of her major rivals in the mayor’s race.

When asked Thursday what the decision might mean for the project Chiofaro has been working on since Thomas M. Menino was mayor, Janey was noncommittal.

“We’re moving forward with a new plan,” she said. “Will that become part of it? We shall see.”

The announcement is one of Janey’s first involving a controversial development project since becoming acting mayor in March. It also comes in the latter stages of a pitched and crowded mayoral race, when every decision she makes will be scrutinized by political adversaries. The preliminary election, which will winnow the mayoral field to two, is less than three weeks away, and she has come under growing fire from rivals who say she’s mishandling the job.

When asked Thursday whether she has the power, under city charter, to withdraw the plan as acting mayor, Janey’s response was terse.

“I just did it,” she said.

Later, at least two of her rivals issued statements that were supportive of the move, saying it offers the possibility of designing a more inclusive waterfront.

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Janey framed reopening the harbor plan as part of a broader effort to improve climate resiliency across Boston and along the waterfront in particular. She plans to hold community discussions aimed at increasing access to the waterfront, mitigating the impact of climate change, and requiring that new developments do not result in a net increase in carbon emissions.

The move effectively halts the BPDA’s review of Chiofaro’s tower and of a 300-foot tower proposed for the James Hook & Co. site near the Northern Avenue Bridge along Fort Point Channel.

Environmental groups and others who’ve been pushing back against the project for years hailed the move.

Deanna Moran, director of environmental planning at the Conservation Law Foundation, said the original harbor planning process was flawed by its narrow focus on two development sites and its failure to include a broader range of constituencies from across the city. CLF was one of several local nonprofits that urged Janey to redo the plan about a month ago.

“I think it shows tremendous leadership on Mayor Janey’s part to step up and use the authority she has to ask for a redo in the process,” Moran said. “The waterfront is supposed to be an accessible resource to everyone in the city, not just those who live downtown.”

Some of Chiofaro’s waterfront neighbors concurred. The trustees of the Harbor Towers condominium complex said Janey’s action offers an opportunity for a “new transparent public process” to reimagine the waterfront. And Vikki Spruill, chief executive of the New England Aquarium, called Janey’s decision a “bold move,” and said Chiofaro’s proposal should now go back to square one.

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“He’s had lots of time to sort of rethink what his proposal could have, should have been,” Spruill said. “As recently as 18 months [ago] his solution was to elevate his building on a 4-foot pedestal, which solves his challenges, but does not solve the challenges of abutting neighbors.”

Boston Harbor Now chief executive Kathy Abbott sent a letter to Janey earlier this month, urging her to take steps to make the waterfront more welcoming and resilient to climate change. Abbott did not necessarily call for the harbor plan to be redone, saying there were other ways to achieve these goals.

But on Thursday, she welcomed the potential for change brought about by Janey’s move. “She’s creating an opportunity for the rest of us to step up and help to create something really different,” Abbott said.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.