State officials this week dealt a blow to a controversial hotel proposed for Lewis Wharf, signaling that there are limits to how far they will let Boston’s building boom surge up to, and beyond, the edge of the city’s waterfront.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Wednesday ruled that developers cannot build out onto wharves, piers, and pilings that sit below water at high tide. That will likely send a 277-room hotel planned for the edge of Lewis Wharf back to the drawing board.
The hotel is one of several contentious waterfront developments coming before state regulators.
The Department of Environmental Protection is currently reviewing a condo tower at 150 Seaport Blvd. that’s being opposed by the influential Conservation Law Foundation, which is concerned it will wall off public access to the harbor. And the Boston Redevelopment Authority is wrapping up a lengthy process to rezone the downtown waterfront from Long Wharf to the Northern Avenue Bridge that could allow for at least two tall towers, but not before the state signs off.
It’s too soon to say what the Lewis Wharf decision might mean for those other projects, development specialists said. Neither 150 Seaport nor Don Chiofaro’s proposed tower at the Boston Harbor Garage would build over the same kind of submerged piers as Lewis Wharf.
But it does suggest that state environmental regulators view waterfront development through a different lens than Boston officials, said Conservation Law Foundation senior counsel Peter Shelley.
“The state does not have this development function here [that the BRA does],” Shelley said. “It will be reviewing these with its trustee hat on. That’s a very unique and important role.”
The BRA has yet to weigh in on the Lewis Wharf proposal, deferring first to state environmental regulators who spent months reviewing the project.
Located at the edge of the wharf, the complex would include a two-building hotel, park, and underground garage. While 2.4 acres of the complex would sit on the wharf itself, another 1.6 acres was planned atop decayed piers in the harbor. Many of them are submerged at high tide, so the Department of Environmental Protection ruled that they do not count as an “existing” pile field, and thus cannot be built on.
The Department of Environmental Protection ruling is not final; the agency will take comments from the public for 30 days. But the agency suggested developer JW Capital Partners will have to revise its project.
“The department believes that this regulatory clarification will result in a substantially reduced project shoreline,” the agency concluded.
Will Adams, a partner at JW Capital, did not return messages Thursday, and an attorney for the company declined to comment. But the hotel’s vocal opponents were quick to declare victory.
“It’s surely a positive from our perspective,” said Jennifer Crampton, a leader of Save Our North End Waterfront. “Now we need to make sure the city and the developer take the findings seriously and stop the project.”
Crampton’s group is one of several that are pushing back against waterfront developments they say are too aggressive for the neighborhood and threaten to “wall off” the waterfront with massive buildings, while providing too little in the way of public or open space.
Several are closely watching the BRA’s effort to rewrite a zoning plan that governs the area from Long Wharf to the Northern Avenue Bridge and would enable developer Don Chiofaro’s planned 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage and a 305-foot tower at the Hook Lobster property. After more than three years, that process is wrapping up this fall.
The New England Aquarium will soon release its own version of a master plan for the area next to Long Wharf, while the Wharf District Council, which represents condo owners and businesses along the waterfront, is set next week to unveil a plan for public space.
“We want to make sure it’s welcoming,” said council president Marc Margulies. “We want to make sure the waterfront works for pedestrians and that there’s access to the water.”
Civic amenities and public space would improve the waterfront, developers argue, but they also cost money. The best way to pay for them is to enable larger development — the sort of big towers and ambitious over-water hotels being proposed.
Alex Krieger, principal at architecture and planning firm NBBJ, said there is some truth to the developers’ argument.
“Land costs are high. Construction costs are high. The regulatory environment is very slow,” he said. “All of those things mean that projects have to be pretty darn big if they’re going to work.”