Some civic spaces built along the Boston waterfront consist of nondescript meeting rooms or a forgotten observation deck.
That’s not going to be what happens this time.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority is working with UDR Inc. to find a tenant for civic space in the bottom two floors of the company’s new 21-story apartment tower on Pier 4. The result? It could be the most high-profile cultural use on that section of the waterfront since the Institute of Contemporary Art opened there nine years ago.
The right to build on tidelands in this state often comes with a requirement: setting aside space for civic or cultural uses. That could mean anything from a museum to a ferry-ticket kiosk to a sculpture garden. Developers usually go to city and state officials with their own ideas. And they can take the path of least resistance, sometimes with proposals as boring as a hallway that the public walks through anyway.
City officials said the Pier 4 project would be the first time in at least 15 years that a developer is working with the city to openly seek proposals for a civic or cultural space to meet this requirement.
UDR is making 20,000 square feet available — a mix of first-floor and second-floor spaces and an outdoor area along Seaport Boulevard — through a below-market lease. Potential uses could include a theater or other performance venue, for example.
“There are opportunities out there that we may not be aware of,” said Rich McGuinness, the BRA’s deputy director for waterfront planning. “We’re just encouraging [UDR] to cast out a net to see if there are institutions interested in moving to the waterfront or expanding to the waterfront. The mayor’s office really wanted to make sure we were doing great outreach in an open process.”
If successful, the approach may be replicated elsewhere along the waterfront. For example, McGuinness said, it could be used when the big parking lot between A Street and Fort Point Channel is redeveloped.
Meanwhile, the BRA and Fallon Co. are still trying to fill the remaining civic and cultural spaces required for the 20-acre Fan Pier development, nearby on the South Boston Waterfront. Much of that mandate was covered by the ICA’s 2006 opening on donated land. City officials have other possible civic tenants in mind to complete the Fan Pier requirement, such as outposts for the Children’s Museum, New England Aquarium, and the Boston Harbor Island Alliance, McGuinness said. The ICA is also looking to expand there.
For Steve Hollinger, who lives in the nearby Fort Point neighborhood, the public search for a cultural tenant at Pier 4 represents a major shift for Boston’s waterfront development
“It’s reaching out to the world and trying to do it publicly, instead of saying, ‘We’re just going to handpick somebody,’ ” Hollinger said. “That’s what the waterfront deserves. . . . The success of the waterfront really depends on civic and cultural activation.”
The size of the Pier 4 development — there are two other big buildings in the works, along with a waterfront park planned for the spot where diners once dug into baked scrod and lobster bisque at Anthony’s Pier 4 — is one reason city officials are taking a public approach to picking a cultural use.
But there are other factors at work.
Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association, said that because UDR is an out-of-state company, from Colorado, it probably did not begin the process with a local user in mind.
And she said Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s new arts czar, Julie Burros, is trying to show the city’s cultural community that City Hall is open to new ideas.
“After 20 years, you get used to doing things in a certain way,” Li said, referring to the tenure of the former mayor, Thomas M. Menino. “The Walsh administration, they’re still open for trying things a different way.”
Steven Cecil, an urban designer and waterfront planner in Boston, said the effort to solicit users for the Pier 4 space could also bring to light potential cultural uses for other waterfront properties.
“The best thing to do is to open the doors and find out who can come in.”
Proposals need to be submitted by May 4 for review by UDR, along with state and city officials.
Leaders in the city’s space-crunched theater community may take a look. Julie Hennrikus, executive director of the nonprofit StageSource trade group, has an idea that could make the Pier 4 space financially viable as a small theater: a work space or startup incubator that doubles as a performance venue at night. “It’s a great opportunity to dream,” she said, “and to think big.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.