In a clear early signal of her development priorities, Mayor Michelle Wu is pumping the brakes on a long-debated plan that would allow a skyscraper on the edge of Boston Harbor, saying her administration will focus first on better planning of waterfront development in East Boston.
It’s a notable shift, one that likely further delays developer Don Chiofaro’s 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage. It instead will focus attention on a rapidly changing neighborhood across the harbor, where pricey new development is transforming a once-industrial waterfront that’s under threat from rising sea levels.
“We can’t say ‘equity’ and prioritize downtown over East Boston,” said the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s chief of environment, energy, and open spaces. “Our commitment to equity requires us to focus on East Boston and not delay it anymore.”
The Wu administration told state officials Wednesday that it will launch a new municipal harbor plan — a planning document that outlines development guidelines for waterfront communities — in East Boston. Wu also confirmed plans to amend a similar plan for downtown that the state approved in 2018 under former mayor Martin J. Walsh after years of debate and dozens of public meetings.
The downtown plan covered 42 acres of waterfront property and tidelands from Long Wharf to the Moakley Bridge. But its central focus was to pave the way for Chiofaro’s project as well as a second 305-foot tower proposed for the Hook Lobster property. It came under heavy criticism for its lack of focus on the broader waterfront.
White-Hammond said the city won’t necessarily wait until an East Boston plan is complete to restart the downtown plan, but will focus first and foremost on East Boston. That neighborhood, she noted, is “incredibly vulnerable” to sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change.
“The downtown community will have to wait a little bit, because we need to make sure East Boston is given the focus and attention and support that it needs,” White-Hammond said. “Then we can come back to . . . a conversation around downtown.”
In a statement Wednesday, Chiofaro gave no sign of backing away from the project he’s been pushing through four mayoral administrations, but agreed that rising seas should be a priority in harbor planning.
“We are in full agreement with Mayor Wu that climate resiliency and equity are urgent considerations for the future of our entire waterfront,” Chiofaro Co. said in a statement. “It’s no exaggeration to say that in recent months Boston has been playing chicken with nature and is lucky to have escaped with near-misses. We’re committed to our neighborhood and our investment.”
An East Boston harbor plan would build on ongoing efforts to expand affordable housing, prepare for climate change and rising sea levels, and support “neighborhood economies that meet the needs of local residents and small businesses,” the city said Wednesday.
It’s not yet clear exactly who would be involved in the East Boston planning process, what a plan could look like, or how long it might take to create. But even the announcement of one is music to Albert Caldarelli’s ears.
Caldarelli, the longtime executive director of the East Boston Community Development Corp., said a number of luxury complexes have popped up along the East Boston waterfront, while a waiting list for affordable housing has swelled to 5,000 families.
“We’re begging the mayor to step back, look at the East Boston waterfront, look at East Boston as a whole, and start making some plans to see how you can protect us,” Caldarelli said. “The news that we saw is fantastic. They’re finally ready to do it.”
Kathy Abbott, chief executive of the waterfront advocacy organization Boston Harbor Now, also cheered Wu’s decision.
“It’s a very clear reflection of the prioritization of equity in the administration, and recognizing the need to provide those neighborhoods that are most vulnerable with some help,” Abbott said.
Pushing back the timeframe on the downtown plan will again delay Chiofaro’s tower next to the New England Aquarium. After more than a decade of fits and starts, Chiofaro formally pitched a $1.2 billion office and residential tower, called Pinnacle at Central Wharf, in early 2020. However, formal city review of the project quickly stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project suffered another blow in late 2021 when a Suffolk County judge threw out the downtown harbor plan amid lawsuits filed by the Conservation Law Foundation and residents of neighboring Harbor Towers. State officials have appealed, but in the wake of that ruling, then-acting mayor Kim Janey signaled her desire to rewrite the downtown plan, and Wu agreed. In the meantime, both Chiofaro’s tower and a proposal for a hotel at the Hook Lobster site are on hold, the city said.
In a letter to state environmental officials notifying them of her plan, Wu noted that rising seas have become a clearer and more urgent issue even since the downtown plan was approved in 2018.
And in comments on GBH Wednesday, she noted that even projections released just this week of sea level rise expected in coming decades highlight the urgency of ensuring all of Boston’s waterfront — both downtown and in Eastie — can weather the rising oceans to come.
“In the limited time that we have,” she said, “we can’t get this wrong.”
Victoria McGrane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.