The Seaport District’s newest public space is unfolding after years of planning. One section of the linear park ― called Harbor Way ― opened last fall, construction is underway on two other parts, and a critical element is being redesigned.
Will this be the transformative open space many of us have been craving in Boston’s shiniest neighborhood?
The park, which will run one-third of a mile from the harbor’s edge to Summer Street, sits in Seaport Square, a 23-acre property owned by WS Development in the heart of the South Boston waterfront. WS tells me it’s too early to pass judgment on its signature public space, which won’t feel finished for another three to five years.
Yet there is enough happening to get a sense of whether this will be spectacular, ho-hum, or something in between. I’ve walked the Harbor Way route over the past few weeks with neighborhood activist Steve Hollinger, as well as with members of the WS team. My conclusion: It’s not going to be Manhattan’s celebrated High Line — even though WS hired the same landscape architect who repurposed an old elevated rail line into one of New York City’s most popular parks.
Still, the Harbor Way will become an enjoyable addition to the Seaport for those who live and work there. It won’t be a destination unto itself, but that’s the City of Boston’s problem, not the developer’s.
People are flocking to Seaport Square because of the office towers, condos, and cafes. Others are brought in by WS’s meticulous programming of about 500 events annually, from Black Owned Bos. Market to Drag Queen Story Hour. The Chestnut Hill developer is best known for its suburban lifestyle centers, including those in Dedham and Lynnfield.
The size and scope of public space are a function of what the city — from the Boston Planning & Development Agency to Parks and Recreation — demands of developers when projects come up for approval.
So is Harbor Way the kind of open space we want in Boston?
To get answers, I sought out the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, who has been the city’s chief of environment, energy, and open space for more than a year, first under acting Mayor Kim Janey and now under Mayor Michelle Wu. WS bought Seaport Square in 2015, which means much of the planning and permitting took place during the Marty Walsh administration. She got on the phone to relay her concerns about the Seaport in general.
Growing up in Boston, White-Hammond has seen the district transform from a sea of dusty parking lots into one of the most desirable addresses in the country, thanks to billions of federal tax dollars that cleaned up the harbor and built new tunnel connections.
Office towers and condos are better than what was there, White-Hammond tells me, but she can’t help but think about what could have been, citing the park system Frederick Law Olmsted masterminded two centuries ago that runs from the Boston Common to Franklin Park.
“We missed an opportunity to create a kind of connected and diverse park system that is worthy of a neighborhood that didn’t exist when Olmsted was here,” White-Hammond said. “It could have been an homage to the best of what open space can be.”
Yes, the 20th century birthed the Rose Kennedy Greenway, but you’re not going to find anything like that in the Seaport. There is Martin’s Park, a lush one-acre playground that the city owns, but other open spaces tend to be manicured lawns and so-called pocket parks. Stunning privately owned public space just does not exist.
White-Hammond longs for more places like the Christian Science Plaza in the Back Bay, a grand reflecting pool that functions as a gathering space for all. Because those kinds of spaces are few and far between, White-Hammond wants to re-examine how the city approaches public space on private property.
Instead of allowing that space to stay in private hands, she says the developer should work with Boston officials to create a park and then turn it over to be owned by the city. The space could be co-managed with the city or a nonprofit. There’s a precedent for that ― such as the A Street Park in South Boston and Post Office Square in the Financial District.
This approach needs to take place early on during the planning process, when the city has the most leverage. A property like Seaport Square is too far along in development, but White-Hammond said she is having discussions with developers on projects elsewhere.
White-Hammond wants the city to have more control for another reason: Parks and open space are critical to climate resiliency, something that shouldn’t be left up to the private sector to figure out.
If the city owned publicly accessible space on private property, she believes, the Seaport would feel different. She wonders, for example, why there isn’t a baseball or soccer field, or more splash pads for kids.
“I do go down there, and on the whole, it doesn’t feel bad. It doesn’t feel welcoming, either,” she said. “I do have concerns about if all the open spaces are just promenades with seats. Is that what we want?”
That’s what I found on the Harbor Way that WS has built so far in a stretch between Seaport Boulevard and Congress Street: a tree-lined promenade with tables and chairs. The aesthetic is a nod to the New England waterfront and history from the glacial era, when ice transported massive rocks across land. Wooden planks and granite pavers line the ground, along with patches of grass and plantings and a set of some 250,000 pounds of sand-colored boulders known as The Rocks.
WS senior vice president Yanni Tsipis said it can take a few years for vegetation to flourish and a tree canopy to form, but he anticipates Harbor Way will become a “central unifying element” in the district, forming a north-south spine similar to how Seaport Boulevard creates an east-west connection.
“So much is yet to come – and to bloom, blossom, and evolve,” Tsipis said.
Harbor Way will feel different from publicly owned open space — like the Greenway or Martin’s Park — because it is ultimately driven by commercial interests. It’s there to complement the restaurants, shops, offices, and residences WS is building.
We’re almost conditioned to expect less, but that is where White-Hammond and new BPDA director Arthur Jemison have a chance to hit a reset button.
The Wu administration has a shot at leaving its mark with the most recent project change proposed by WS for Seaport Square. It wants to remove a retail building from the plans to create a contiguous 1.4-acre park along Seaport Boulevard. The change would represent a return to what residents originally wanted and give WS a chance to reimagine the public space there.
“For many people, this is one of the spaces they’ll first see when they get to the Seaport,” White-Hammond said. “It could be, and should be, a resilient, showstopping park that makes people want to come to the area.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.