This gritty industrial section of the South Boston Waterfront may seem transfixed in time, immune to the rapid rise in high-end construction all around it. But take a closer look, and you'll see this critical piece of the city's industrial economy undergo its own evolution.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority
is wrapping up a master plan update that would chart a new future for the Boston Marine Industrial Park, a nearly 190-acre peninsula that's largely dedicated to marine industrial uses, such as seafood processing and ship repair.
Among the biggest proposed changes that could emerge in the coming months: expanding what the city considers "marine" to cram more industrial uses on the remaining undeveloped sites. The updated plan could bring buildings that are taller or have bigger footprints. It could also provide for more lab space and new restaurants to serve the park's estimated 3,500 workers. A second parking garage could be in the works, and improvements to make it easier for boats to pull up.
The park's fate has taken on new significance in recent weeks as organizers of the 2024 Olympic bid have discussed relocating food wholesalers from Widett Circle to the industrial park to make way for a potential Olympic stadium. But the master plan update has been in the works since last year and will continue to take shape, regardless of how the Olympics debate plays out.
The areas flanking the park are already being remade rapidly. In the Seaport, west of the park, fancy office towers are steadily emerging from parking lots. To the south, across the Reserved Channel, former warehouses and garages along East First Street are blossoming into high-end condos.
City officials have long held the industrial park as a sanctuary from gentrification — an increasingly important refuge during the city's current boom.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority recently wrapped up a survey of the park's tenants and what they want out of the area. City officials say they want to ensure the park remains home to industrial jobs.
"We're committed to the notion that there will be a robust future for the marine industrial uses," said Brian Golden, the BRA's director. "There has got to be a place in this city for the high-quality blue collar industrial jobs that the park has been able to provide a home for."
It's not as if the park has been insulated. Machinists, welders, and fishmongers now share the streets and sidewalks with millennial tech workers. A number of life sciences employers, including Ginkgo BioWorks and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, opened offices and labs there, and the MassChallenge startup incubator recently relocated there from the other side of the Southie waterfront.
But changes happen much more slowly in the park, created in the late 1970s and early 1980s — out of the shells of a former naval station annex and an adjacent Army base — in large part due to restrictions imposed on the parcels within it. Because most of the land sits within state-regulated tidelands, Department of Environmental Protection approvals are typically needed to change the uses allowed on those sites.
Currently, the department requires at least two-thirds of the park to be marine industrial, and no more than 5 percent of the park can be nonindustrial.
"The development pressures are really great," said Vivien Li, president of the Boston Harbor Association. "If given the opportunity, everyone would like a law office or condos with a water view. That's what you're really protecting against."
City officials haven't given up on attracting new industrial uses. They just offered development rights for a large, vacant building to J.C. Cannistraro, a Watertown maker of plumbing and HVAC systems that wants to consolidate manufacturing operations in the 150,000-square-foot structure on Fid Kennedy Avenue.
If Cannistraro goes ahead, it would bring roughly 100 jobs into the park two years from now and potentially turn the site into a hub for other kinds of modular construction.
Finding tenants that qualify under the more specific "marine industrial" label is a tougher task. The Massachusetts Port Authority controls the park's largest piece of vacant land, but the marine designation has made it difficult for Massport to develop the site.
Another example: Boston Ship Repair controls a 30,000-square-foot building that has been empty in part because of the challenge of finding a marine industrial tenant.
"Having old values is great, but I think you need to adjust things," said Ed Snyder, chief executive at Boston Ship Repair, which employs 50 to 200 people when a ship is in its drydock for work. "The marine industrial usage in the Northeast has been a dying breed. It's been tough."
City officials could change the definition of marine use to include companies that ship goods through Logan International Airport, or they could petition the state to reduce the threshold for maritime uses to allow more room for other kinds of industry.
"Times have changed," said Jeff Wallace, one of the landlords at the eight-story industrial building at 27 Drydock Ave. "I think we have to adjust. Otherwise, we're dinosaurs."
Wendy Gettleman, Dana-Farber's vice president of facilities management and real estate, said the hospital opened its research operations in the park nearly 10 years ago. The lease terms and the water views were attractive, as was the wide-open floor plan.
But Gettleman said the park faces a number of transportation issues. There are not enough public transit options, for example, and the parking is inadequate. About one-third of Dana-Farber's 100 employees in the park use their cars to get to work. As the surface lots to the west of the park disappear, Gettleman expects the parking challenges to worsen, she said.
Rich McGuinness, a deputy planning director at the redevelopment authority, said he and his colleagues are keeping the parking dilemma in mind as they consider scalingback the park's maritime industrial requirements.
And the BRA is considering a second garage to ease pressure on the existing 1,740-space garage there.
Whatever happens, Warren Dibble, the chief financial officer at Harpoon Brewery, wants the industrial park to maintain its industrial identity, he said.
To Dibble, the park ensures that key services and jobs are kept within the city's borders.
And perhaps more importantly, the park helps preserve some portion of the city's character, a part of its soul.
"Change is going to happen," Dibble said. "It would be great to control the change so it happens in a planned fashion and is not terribly disruptive to the businesses that have been here."
Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.