The political genius of Michelle Wu is that she makes us believe all is possible.
Especially on Election Night when she told us we don’t have to choose between bold solutions and filling potholes, that change can happen “at scale and at street level. We need, we deserve, both.”
More than 100 days into her administration, we’re learning there’s one big exception: the Boston waterfront. We’ve known for a long time that Wu wants to rethink the 42-acre downtown municipal harbor plan that outlines development guidelines from Christopher Columbus Park to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge. What we didn’t know is she would wait to start that process and instead focus first on planning the East Boston Waterfront.
Eastie deserves the administration’s attention. But not at the expense of the downtown waterfront. Politically, it makes sense if you’re a new mayor with a mandate to deliver on equity. But environmentally and economically, it’s the wrong message from City Hall.
Eastie and downtown both are vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal storms. Neither waterfront can wait for resiliency planning.
“I am afraid we are going to run out of time,” said Jeff Porter, chair of the environmental law practice at Boston firm Mintz Levin and the former board chair of the waterfront advocacy group Boston Harbor Now. “A successful municipality in the 21st century has to walk and chew gum at the same time . . . you can’t put the entire downtown on ice.
“Doing nothing doesn’t create greater equity,” added Porter. “It’s advancing equity in East Boston, but it’s not advancing equity in the rest of the city.”
Time is also money in the world of development. Surging construction costs and rising interest rates are making building anything much more expensive. And that matters because higher costs hamstring developers’ ability to deliver meaningful public amenities from open space to affordable housing.
For those keeping score at home, developer Don Chiofaro has been trying to redevelop the Harbor Garage since 2007. Everyone agrees the hulking building must go, but three of the last four mayors have been unhappy with Chiofaro’s billion-dollar-plus proposal to put a soaring tower so close to the water’s edge.
But this isn’t about Chiofaro. Far from it. This is about how government should be able to deliver both. This is about how neighborhoods shouldn’t be pitted against each other. This is about real estate investors remaining bullish on Boston rather than backing away because development becomes unpredictable.
“To have the municipal harbor plan ripped out from under you, what is the purpose of public process?” said John Moriarty, whose construction firm has been involved in several Boston waterfront projects, including a proposal for a 25-story hotel at the James Hook & Co. Lobster site on Atlantic Avenue that falls under the dormant downtown harbor plan. “We honestly don’t know what to do right now.”
Well, the only thing is to wait for Wu’s next move. Moriarty anticipates costs will keep going up, from materials to interest rates. He’s already spent close to a decade on the project and sunk several million dollars into planning.
“We have to see how the mayor wants to play this out,” said Moriarty. “We should be respectful to her.”
Still, he makes clear he doesn’t want this to drag on for another decade. The administration, he pointed out, should want development to move along, given that property taxes generate nearly three-quarters of the city’s budget. Even though Boston has a reputation as a difficult place to build, investors know the city is a good investment and that projects ultimately get done. That shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“Money is very fluid,” said Moriarty. “Once the sense [that development] is arbitrary, it is going to be hard to do business.”
Perhaps Wu’s calculus is that the city can afford to take it slow. The Boston real estate market is so hot — thanks to our burgeoning life sciences sector that demands new lab space — City Hall can prioritize Eastie over downtown without worrying about money wandering elsewhere.
Plus, the mayor probably doesn’t want to move too fast on massive projects because she’s in the midst of fulfilling her campaign promise to overhaul the Boston Planning & Development Agency. A search has been underway for a new Cabinet-level chief of planning who is expected to play a major role in reimagining the city’s development process.
Then there’s the bandwidth of the BPDA these days. Mayoral transitions always lead to turnover, and in 2021, there were 47 departures at the BPDA compared to 18 in 2020, according to the agency. The BPDA currently has about 240 full-time staffers and 27 vacancies — including several key positions.
Legal uncertainty also hangs over municipal harbor plans statewide with the Supreme Judicial Court taking up oral arguments this week over how the state approves such plans. But that’s basically a moot point, given Wu’s intent to amend the current plan no matter what happens in court.
The upshot is that the mayor shouldn’t lose track of time. As it launches an Eastie plan, the administration says it will — at some point — revisit the downtown harbor plan. When? Nobody knows.
This much we do know: It took the BPDA four years and 40 public meetings to craft the current downtown municipal harbor plan. That work was completed in 2017.
And here we are five years later, no closer to developing and protecting the waterfront. We can’t let months of delay drag into years.
For if we do, all cannot be possible.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.