Business & Tech

Pay attention, Don Chiofaro: The Aquarium has come to the rescue

Developer Don Chiofaro talked to Globe reporters and editors earlier this month about his vision for the waterfront, which includes the site of the present Harbor Garage.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

Developer Don Chiofaro talked to Globe reporters and editors earlier this month about his vision for the waterfront, which includes the site of the present Harbor Garage.

Finally, some vision on the downtown waterfront, but will it become the impossible dream?

The New England Aquarium is throwing Don Chiofaro a life vest as he tries to drum up support for his Harbor Garage project. The aquarium is calling on the developer to get behind its master plan to create the “Blueway,” a corridor that connects the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to the Boston Harbor with an unobstructed view to the water.

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It’s no secret Chiofaro and the aquarium have an icy relationship. Things haven’t been the same since he proposed replacing the garage, which sits next to the aquarium, with a $1 billion complex featuring sky-high towers.

The aquarium wrote a scathing letter to the city in June 2015, saying it was worried about the size of Chiofaro’s project and how construction could drive visitors away and harm the health of marine animals. In an instant, the penguins and the harbor seals succeeded where the other neighbors, those in Harbor Towers, have failed: grabbing a sympathetic ear. Try as we may, it’s hard to feel sorry for those living in waterfront condos whose views may get blocked by Chiofaro.

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The brilliance in the aquarium’s latest move is that it offers the developer something he desperately needs: an ally in transforming the waterfront. The other stroke of genius is the aquarium is putting some skin in the game.

To achieve the Blueway, the aquarium would relocate its IMAX theater, and Chiofaro would need to concentrate all of the public open space on his site in one spot. It’s good timing all around: The developer is not releasing an updated garage design until the City of Boston finishes its municipal harbor plan from Long Wharf to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge.

The aquarium is aiming to reverse the parcel-by-parcel planning the Barr Foundation and others have been railing against. It’s a simple concept, really. Come up with a vision, get property owners to join forces, and then create something special.

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It’s hard for Chiofaro to be against that. His team has been briefed on the idea of a Blueway, and it fits in with what Chiofaro hopes to accomplish at the garage site. Or, as he has put it, a “signature public realm, that in and of itself, will be a great destination.”

The aquarium’s master plan aims to do just that. The Blueway is the just beginning. The aquarium also wants to create a public space that brings people closer to the water’s edge, including a tidal pool that would feature marine life such as a mussel garden. The aquarium also wants to build a walkway that would bring people to a man-made island that reflects the ecology of the Boston Harbor Islands.

Sixty-seven percent of visitors who drive to the New England Aquarium park at the nearby Harbor Garage (above).

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

Sixty-seven percent of visitors who drive to the New England Aquarium park at the nearby Harbor Garage (above).

In many ways, the aquarium wants to return to its roots as a catalyst on the downtown waterfront, where it opened in 1969, surrounded by decrepit warehouses and dilapidated piers. Today, officials see an opportunity to get Bostonians to reimagine public space.

“It’s going to inject some serious inspiration into this process,” said Nigella Hillgarth, the aquarium’s president, who has been working on the city’s municipal harbor plan.

Big ideas, of course, cost money. Under the proposed municipal harbor plan, Chiofaro is expected to contribute about $18.5 million toward preserving and creating open space in the neighborhood.

The aquarium doesn’t yet have a price tag for the Blueway, but it’s going to be a lot more than what Chiofaro is planning to spend to offset the impact of a project that could grow to 600 feet tall and take up 900,000 square feet of space.

So this is where the developer might stop singing kumbaya. The aquarium’s support will likely cost him dearly. Let’s start with the whale in the room: parking. The aquarium relies on the 1,400-space Harbor Garage for visitors and employees. About 40 percent of the aquarium’s visitors arrive by car, and 67 percent park at Chiofaro’s garage.

This is the moment for waterfront foes to set aside their differences and stay focused on the big picture.

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While Chiofaro is expected to replace all 1,400 spaces in the new development, there’s currently no proposal on where aquarium patrons might go during construction, which will take several years.

These are the kind of details that can tear both sides apart. There’s a reason why Chiofaro has only one major complex — International Place — on his resume. He can be a tough negotiator and doesn’t know when to stop pushing people’s buttons.

The aquarium’s plan deserves a serious look. This is the moment for waterfront foes to set aside their differences and stay focused on the big picture.

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