Jon Cronin wants a sweetheart deal on the South Boston Waterfront.
Don’t act like this has never happened before. Developers cut deals all the time with government in exchange for community benefits such as affordable housing or a park. That’s how things get built in this town.
But what’s gotten some folks riled up is whether Cronin’s project is the mother of all sweetheart deals and one that makes a mockery of a state law aimed to protect public’s right to the waterfront.
The South Boston businessman is asking the city and state to rewrite the rules so he can squeeze a 22-story tower on his tiny parcel that currently houses two restaurants, Atlantic Beer Garden and Whiskey Priest. Other buildings in the area are of similar height, but they sit on much larger lots that allow for more open space.
For his part, Cronin will do some good things for the neighborhood, including a $1.5 million donation to help create the Martin Richard Park, in memory of the 8-year-old Boston Marathon bombing victim, and the construction of a section of the Harborwalk that will cost $10 million. The Harborwalk is a public walkway that connects miles of city waterfront.
That all sounds great until you discover what currently passes as public access on Cronin’s waterfront property.
Visitors who want a glimpse of the harbor must navigate a sketchy-looking alley and duck under what appears to be a fire escape to reach a second-floor viewing deck shared with patrons of Whiskey Priest. The setup is uninviting, and if not for the official “Harborwalk South Boston” sign on the street level, few would dare to venture in. At least Cronin could have sprung for a fresh coat of paint.
So now we’re supposed to believe Cronin will become the standard bearer for preserving the public’s right to freely use the waterfront?
Cronin couldn’t get on the phone with me Thursday, but in a statement his company, Cronin Holdings, acknowledged that public access on his site is not what it should be. But his $260 million luxury condo proposal is probably the only way that part of the Harborwalk will ever get built.
“As licensed nearly 20 years ago under a previous owner, the public viewing area is ill-conceived and accessed through a service corridor that was never designed for public use,” the statement said. “The site deserves a real harbor walk and real access, but given the complexities of the Chapter 91 process, the only way to do that is for our redevelopment to move forward.”
The state’s Chapter 91 regulations list specific requirements for public access to the waterfront, but they can be modified. Cronin bought the property a decade ago and inherited the Chapter 91 license that required the property owner provide access to the harbor — whether people eat at the on-site restaurants or not.
Specifically, the license required a public walkway be built on the property. Neither he nor the previous owner were able to fulfill the requirement because of a legal battle with a neighboring landowner.
In the interim, the state allowed for a temporary fix — a second-floor viewing deck that could also have outdoor seating space for restaurant customers. The property owner also had to open up the restaurant’s restrooms to the public.
Cronin resolved issues with his neighbor last year, paving the way for another section of the Harborwalk and his redevelopment proposal.
Last week the board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority voted unanimously to approve Cronin’s project after city staff recommended controversial changes to allow for a much larger building on that parcel.
The project received broad community support — including from congressman Stephen Lynch, state Senators Linda Dorcena Forry and Nick Collins, City Council President Michelle Wu, and City Councilor Bill Linehan — but also drew the threat of a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation.
The environmental advocacy group is warning the city is setting a bad precedent for shoreline development. Even with a new Harborwalk, the Conservation Law Foundation calculates that Cronin doesn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling Chapter 91’s requirement that half of the development area remain open space.
Now it will be up to state environmental officials whether to approve the city’s changes to its harbor plan to accommodate Cronin’s project.
“There is nothing different that we're doing here that we haven’t done in other harbor plans,” said Rich McGuinness, who oversees waterfront planning for the BRA.
Cronin, an Irish immigrant who is living a wildly successful American dream, is doing what any savvy developer would do when handed a difficult site: push the envelope as far he can on regulations.
Everyone agrees that Cronin’s property should be redeveloped. Amid gleaming new towers, the low-slung restaurants stick out, a reminder of the Southie waterfront’s rougher past. Some three decades ago, Whitey Bulger, the city’s most notorious gangster, roamed that stretch of Northern Avenue and gunned down two victims near where the Whiskey Priest stands today.
But as the Seaport District gets built out and water views become harder to come by unless you can afford multimillion-dollar condos, the question now before the state is: What price progress?