Lewis Wharf, a historic but rundown former shipping facility in Boston’s North End, has for decades resisted redevelopment while much of the waterfront around it has been remade into some of the city’s most expensive properties. But now, a developer is hoping to turn the tide and build a 300-room luxury hotel and a new public park on the site.
The site is mostly a surface parking lot sandwiched between two buildings, and includes a landscaped promenade and the Boston Sailing Center, a yacht club and sailing school. The shoreline is dotted with rotted pilings and the skeleton of a wooden pier.
Boston real estate firm JW Capital Partners wants to build a 380-car underground parking garage and turn the surface lot into a park. The five-story hotel would go at the end of the wharf, on pilings over the water, and include a full-service restaurant with outdoor seating. JW Capital would build a new marina, as well as a new home for the Boston Sailing Center, and also upgrade the Harborwalk pedestrian trail.
“Our project intends to connect the waterfront back to the neighborhood.” said Will Adams, a partner at the company who is leading the development. He called the current site “dilapidated.”
Efforts to redevelop Lewis Wharf date back more than two decades, when the Gunwyn Co. wanted to build a large hotel and parking garage but was unable to secure financing. JW Capital itself last year proposed a similar development for the site that included residences. But in the face of stiff opposition from the neighborhood, it dropped the housing component so that its current plan now closely mirrors the one proposed by Gunwyn in 1991.
Putting apartments or condominiums in the new building would have required the company to fight for an exemption from state regulations that largely forbid residential developments on filled tidelands.
“It evolved significantly from when they first started talking about it more than a year ago,” said Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association, who was briefed on the original plans. “I think they realized the permitting process would be so long and expensive if they pushed for residential uses that it wouldn’t be worth doing.”
JW Capital said it was hopeful the hotel, topping off at 55 feet, would be better received because it conforms to a development plan for the area that City Hall hammered out with the neighborhood years ago. Moreover, the hotel needs many of the same regulatory approvals that Gunwyn project secured years ago.
City Hall has so far issued a warm welcome to the proposal.
“It’s attractive because it’s going to improve public access and views to the water,” said Richard McGuinness, deputy director for waterfront planning at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “We want to make sure people know they can walk further out along these piers, and sometimes you need an attraction or a destination like a hotel. It’s a good outcome.”
Even so, neighbors objected strenuously to the earlier proposal that included residences and have expressed concerns about traffic, crowding, and public access. It was not clear whether the revised proposal would tamp down criticism.
Much of Lewis Wharf is owned by DeNormandie Cos., which struck a development deal with JW Capital Partners. The developer has little experience building in Massachusetts, but one of its executives, John Moriarty, also runs a construction company that has built a number of major complexes in the Boston area, including 111 Huntington in the Back Bay and Atlantic Wharf on the waterfront, and will be the contractor for Lewis Wharf.
The firm declined to estimate how much the development would cost.
Renderings of the project show the hotel with twin glass-and-brick wings stretching into Boston Harbor, joined by a one-story pavilion on the wharf. The building was designed by Albert, Righter & Tittmann Architects Inc.
Although she questioned the size of the underground garage, Li noted that with demand for hotel rooms in Boston rising, Lewis Wharf’s ocean views and proximity to downtown and tourist attractions make it an ideal spot for a larger hotel.
“They can command top-of-the-line rates for hotel rooms at this location,” she said.
Still, because of its waterfront location, the Lewis Wharf project will be subject to an unusually intensive approval process. In addition to the usual public meetings and reviews by city planners, state environmental officials, the Boston Conservation Commission, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates navigable waters, must sign off before the company can break ground.
Adams estimated it could take up to two years for his company — along with partner John Moriarty & Associates Inc. — to complete the development and review process. Construction, also complicated by the waterfront location, is expected to take another two years.
“We have a long road to go through with the city and the state,” Adams acknowledged. “You have to do the engineering correctly, and it is more costly to build in these locations. But we think the end result is worth the cost.”