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In East Boston, a dispute between old industry and affordable housing

A nonprofit is suing the state to release a long-empty parcel on the Eastie waterfront from a maritime industrial zone so it can build affordable housing there.

A seven-acre lot on Border Street in East Boston, where a local nonprofit wants to build affordable housing but can't because the state has designated the area for maritime industrial use.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The seven-acre parcel at 102 Border St. in East Boston, with its stunning views of the harbor and the Charlestown Navy Yard across the water, would seem like a great place to build some affordable housing in a neighborhood that sorely needs it.

There’s one hitch to this scenario, and it’s a big one: The property sits within a Designated Port Area, a state-regulated zone that essentially prevents anything but marine industrial uses from going there.

Now the East Boston Community Development Corp. has gone to Suffolk Superior Court to get that parcel, along with an adjacent building the CDC also owns, removed from the DPA, after the state Office of Coastal Zone Management opted against doing so after a thorough review of East Boston’s waterfront. The lawsuit that the CDC filed on Jan. 23 accuses the state agency of ignoring its own regulations and argues the site is better suited for housing than marine industrial work.

The fight in Suffolk Superior is the latest clash over the state’s four-decades-old port-area rules, which are designed to protect industrial waterfront properties from conversion to commercial or residential development — and to hold onto some of the blue-collar jobs that go with them. These zones have become an increasingly common battleground amid the pressures to build along Boston Harbor.


The most prominent of these battles is playing out in Everett, where city officials want to remove a big piece of the Mystic power plant property from the port area there, to enable large-scale redevelopment and open up a swath of the city’s riverfront.

In East Boston, the stakes include the potential for roughly 60 units of affordable housing, and about 30,000 square feet of space for a community group. That’s what East Boston CDC president Al Caldarelli wants to build at 102 Border St. But he can’t, because it’s in a DPA — a legacy of the area’s history as a shipbuilding yard.


Caldarelli said his organization has marketed 102 Border St. for marine industrial uses but has had no takers since acquiring it in late 2015 from Trinity Financial, which developed the Boston East apartments next door. Meanwhile, this stretch of Border Street has become increasingly residential — with Boston East opening in 2016 and the Coppersmith Village apartments opening across the street two years later.

“It became more and more obvious that it was not a site for marine-related activities,” Caldarelli said of 102 Border St. “In 100 years, there hasn’t been one whiff of industrial on it. It’s the site of the original Donald McKay shipbuilding [yard]. Maybe that’s what gets into their head.”

A seven-acre lot on Border Street in East Boston, where a local nonprofit wants to build affordable housing but can't because the state has designated the area for maritime industrial use.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Caldarelli had hoped the site, and a neighboring building his nonprofit occupies at 80 Border St., would have been removed from the DPA during a three-year review of the East Boston shoreline that the state coastal zone office recently completed. But the state agency declined the CDC’s request, opting only to remove a few parcels in nearby Jeffries Point from the DPA because they already include or abut residential buildings.

So now East Boston CDC is suing, arguing that Border Street is not conducive to heavy truck traffic, particularly as the area has become more residential, and that 102 Border St. is not easily accessible to ships because the harbor’s edge consists of riprap with no docking area. The closest shipping channel is hundreds of feet away, separated from the shore by shallow tidal flats that would need extensive dredging. Keeping the parcel “industrial,” the organization says, will just keep it empty.


“We don’t view this as a choice between maritime industrial uses and affordable housing,” said Valerie Moore, a real estate lawyer who represents the East Boston CDC. “It’s a choice of doing nothing or having affordable housing.”

A spokeswoman for the coastal zone management office declined to comment, pointing to the agency’s ruling in December on these East Boston properties. That decision cites improvements — restoring seawalls and removing dilapidated pilings, for example — at 102 Border St. that make it easier to accommodate marine industrial uses, and notes 80 Border St.’s industrial use, including by previous occupant Wigglesworth Machinery. The agency said it was unable to take the nearby residential developments — such as Boston East — into consideration because they were not in the DPA to begin with, and state regulations specifically limit reviews to land within the port area.

Moore said it’s possible that the East Boston CDC could end up asking the Legislature to remove the sites in question from the DPA, but that’s no sure thing, either. Such a move was tried unsuccessfully last year for the Mystic site in Everett, and remains under consideration as an alternative to going through the multiyear boundary review process overseen by the coastal zone management office.

“We’re certainly considering all our options, including a legislative effort,” Moore said of the Border Street parcels. “Certainly, a legislative effort ... would require a lot of political support.”


Boston Harbor Now president Kathy Abbott said the debates about the East Boston and Everett sites underscore the need for the state to revisit the DPA rules, in a way that preserves deep-water port access while preventing these “one-off” exemption bills from being pushed through the Legislature.

“We would rather see a thoughtful look at the regulations and what needs to be done to bring DPAs into the 21st century as opposed to forcing cities and towns to go into the Legislature on each and every one of these, to go around the regulations,” Abbott said. “That does not seem like the best solution. It doesn’t address the [underlying] problem.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.