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shirley leung

Blowing up the harbor zoning plan doesn’t feel like a victory. It shows that the public process is broken

A rendering of Don Chiofaro's proposed tower on the Boston waterfront.
A rendering of Don Chiofaro's proposed tower on the Boston waterfront.TOMORROW AB/KPF

It may feel like a moment of victory on the Boston waterfront, where the environment and equity won the day over a developer’s outsized ambitions.

But we shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate the dissolution of the Boston Municipal Harbor Plan, an action that will not only delay Don Chiofaro’s long-festering proposal to redevelop the Boston Harbor Garage, but also snarl the timelines of other projects.

We need to ask ourselves how did we get here and how can we avoid this fiasco from ever happening again? There is plenty of blame to go around.

It’s not like the 363-page document, released in 2017, was hatched overnight under the cover of darkness. Hardly. Countless community members and leaders worked closely with city officials over five years and 40 public meetings to create zoning guidelines for a 42-acre stretch of downtown waterfront from Christopher Columbus Park to Evelyn Moakley Bridge.

Chiofaro was pressured to shrink the height of his tower by about a third to 600 feet, but apparently that wasn’t enough. If people felt that was still ridiculously too tall for the waterfront, why wasn’t that all hashed out back then?

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There are no real winners here. The debacle reflects how broken our public process is and just how difficult it is to build on prime real estate in Boston. No matter where you land on this, the city still has a hulking eyesore on the waterfront, and there’s no sense when, or if, that will ever change. Chiofaro has been at this since 2007. Yet here we are in 2021, and no one is closer to putting a shovel in the ground.

A view of the Boston waterfront.
A view of the Boston waterfront.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A drawn-out development process ultimately drives up costs, and this delay no doubt will make Chiofaro’s project even more expensive and give him less wiggle room to offer the enhanced public amenities that opponents are seeking.

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The about-face on the Boston waterfront plan also didn’t just happen on its own. Powerful forces and deep pockets behind the scenes seized on a political opening. It was no secret that Marty Walsh took a shine to Chiofaro’s gleaming tower, and the project had momentum until the pandemic froze much of the city’s planning process in 2020.

Chiofaro’s proposal seemed back on track this year until Walsh decamped for Washington in March to serve as President Biden’s labor secretary. Groups seeking to block Chiofaro’s project had previously filed lawsuits, and in April, a Suffolk Superior Court judge sided with the Conservation Law Foundation and Harbor Towers in a ruling that invalidated the municipal harbor planning process across the state. That decision paved the way for Acting Mayor Kim Janey to order up a do-over on the Boston plan last week.

Janey, who is locked in a tight race to win election, has been under enormous pressure from environmental groups and rival candidates to withdraw the current harbor zoning plan. Janey had signaled in May that she did not like Chiofaro’s tower plan, describing it as “too tall and too dense” and saying “this site deserves better.”

As messy as the situation is, one thing’s for sure: A new municipal harbor planning process cannot look like the old one. Otherwise, we will get the same result.

Marc Margulies, who served on the Boston municipal harbor plan advisory committee, said he’s not convinced starting over will address the concerns Janey, environmentalists, and mayoral candidates have about protecting the waterfront from rising sea levels and creating a more accessible waterfront. That’s because the harbor plan is designed as a zoning instrument.

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“Given the limitations of its purview, it either needs to be completely redesigned to more comprehensively address the broad climate and urban design issues, or we must shift the planning process to a different format,” said Margulies, who currently serves as chair of the Wharf District Council, a group that represents the central waterfront from Long Wharf to Russian Wharf.

“Starting the same Municipal Harbor Plan process over again,” he added, “is not the solution.”

The public process is far from perfect in Boston, and this one in particular might have felt like the fix was in for Chiofaro because Walsh wanted to see the tower built. It was only after Walsh left City Hall did we get a sense of how much Chiofaro had engineered a constituency of one.

While there was plenty of public comment, the Boston Planning & Development Agency still drove the process. Sydney Asbury, a political consultant who served as chair of the harbor plan advisory committee, told me she would like more power given to the committee, such as the ability to vote on a final plan.

“There is obviously room for improvement in the process,” said Asbury, who was appointed by Walsh. “Public input is critical in planning and development, and we should find a way to do that more effectively than we did in the first go around.”

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It can seem at times the process is not only broken, but that disagreements over what to do on the waterfront are so entrenched that it’s hard to see how anything gets done. Chiofaro is notoriously brash and stubborn, and his opponents — namely CLF, residents of Harbor Towers, and the New England Aquarium — are newly emboldened to put up a fight.

But there is common ground. There always has been. Everyone wants to see the ugly garage gone. We shouldn’t forget that.

None of this will get resolved during an election year, but whoever is the next mayor needs to lay out a vision for the downtown waterfront that stands up to the tests of time and politics.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.