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Is the Boston waterfront in jeopardy?

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David L. Ryan

There's a new sheriff on the Boston waterfront, and the sheriff has a familiar name: The Barr Foundation.

The powerful nonprofit, founded by Amos Hostetter Jr. and his wife, Barbara, wants to be the voice of reason and vision on our waterfront. The once-secretive foundation is not holding back, judging by a blog entry posted Wednesday on its website by Barr president and trustee Jim Canales.

"Boston is well recognized for its historic waterfront and harbor; yet, this public treasure is in jeopardy," Canales wrote. "In the absence of a long-term, comprehensive vision — and robust, well-resourced entities that protect and steward it — Boston's waterfront has been at the mercy of rapid, and often uncoordinated, parcel-by-parcel development."


But Barr's involvement goes beyond a searing critique; the foundation is putting money where its mouth is. Over the past few months, it has quietly seeded three organizations with a total of more than $800,000 to advance waterfront planning and activities. The money went to Boston Harbor Now, the Trustees of the Reservations, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Canales, sitting in his Lewis Wharf office complete with harbor views, tells me to consider this a down payment. Let's hope so because it's pennies on the dollar for a foundation with $1.6 billion in assets that will give away $70 million this year alone.

Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation.
Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Barr's foray into the waterfront debate — as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might say — is huuuge. Here's why: Development along the Boston Harbor is red hot. Vivien Li, the longtime watchdog of the waterfront, left town for another job, and two young administrations at City Hall and on Beacon Hill are trying to keep up with the real estate market. The only constant, in many cases, are the developers, and that's like asking the foxes to guard the chicken coop.


The city of Boston is typically responsible for a long-term vision, primarily through the downtown Municipal Harbor Plan, but that process has been achingly slow as everyone waits with bated breath what Don Chiofaro does with his hulking Boston Harbor Garage.

Mayor Marty Walsh welcomes the Barr's involvement, which will allow the BRA to do a more-detailed study of the waterfront across the city as part of the Imagine Boston 2030 plan. The only quibble the mayor has is with the characterization of the waterfront's state of affairs.

"I don't actually think the harbor is in jeopardy," Walsh told me. "I think there is an opportunity for us to look at creating more open space."

It's political spin, but it's hard to be against more open space. Because of the Chiofaro proposal — a massive office-residential-shopping complex — the debate over the downtown waterfront has been hyperfocused on height. That should be a big concern, but seems like we're too exhausted to talk about anything else like public parks, culture, recreation, and urban design. It's what we should have done more of before building out the Seaport District, and it's what the Barr Foundation hopes to do this time.

Canales says that no one proposal is drawing the foundation in. Over a year ago, the Hostetters started to think about playing a role on the waterfront. The Barr — christened with Amos Hostetter's middle name — pours money into the arts, education, and climate change. Waterfront planning was a natural extension of its work on climate change, which includes the impact of rising seas on the region.


"We want to be stewards and catalysts," Canales said of the foundation's overall mission. "The waterfront represents exactly that opportunity for us."

Amos Hostetter has an affinity for the water. He cofounded Continental Cablevision, which is how he made his fortune, and put its headquarters on Lewis Wharf in 1969. Even after selling Continental, Hostetter continues to maintain an office on the North End wharf, where the Barr is headquartered.

While the Barr will focus on creating a long-term vision for the waterfront, you can also expect the nonprofit to weigh in on individual projects if they pose a threat to that vision. So I wasted no time asking Canales what the foundation thinks about Chiofaro's proposed development that could be as tall as 600 feet and encompass 900,000 square feet.

The ever-so diplomatic Canales wasn't ready to go to there, but he was willing to say what's important, which is Chapter 91, a state law that has been on the books since 1866 stipulating that the waterfront does not belong to any one person.

"What we're interested here in at Barr is going back to Chapter 91 and going back to, 'How do we protect the public's right to these assets and resources?' " Canales said.

It's not hard to find examples of other cities that have embraced their waterfronts, not just constructing a wall of towers along the water. Canales rattles off examples from New York City's Brooklyn Bridge Park to San Francisco's Crissy Field. He talks enthusiastically about public-private partnerships that made those projects possible, and he offers that the Barr would consider such investments.


"This has a potential to really be a world-class public realm," said Canales.

This notion is particularly exciting. Instead of just thinking about what project fits a developer's budget, we can dream big because the funding might just be there. In other words, no more Green Lines on a diet.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.