Well, that didn’t last long.
After extending an olive branch in September, the New England Aquarium is back to waging a war with developer Don Chiofaro over the $1 billion redevelopment of his Harbor Garage. In a blistering seven-page letter filed with the city on Wednesday, the aquarium reiterated its objections to maximum height and density limits proposed by the city for new construction on Chiofaro’s parcel, which sits next door. Aquarium officials are also concerned that tearing down the garage and building on the site threatens their nearly 40,000 marine animals.
“Put bluntly, the Harbor Garage project construction potentially constitutes an existential threat to the Aquarium,” according to its letter.
The aquarium sent the document as part of a public comment period on a draft of the municipal harbor plan that outlines building guidelines from Long Wharf to the Evelyn Moakley Bridge. The plan will still need approval from the board of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, as well as state environmental officials. The comment period ends Friday.
The aquarium revealed its own masterplan for that section of downtown waterfront in September with the concept of a “Blueway,”a corridor that connects the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to the Boston Harbor with an unobstructed view to the water.
But the Blueway could only be done if Chiofaro agreed to concentrate the open space on his garage project on the side next to the aquarium. The maverick developer appeared open-minded, especially since he needs an ally in his tumultuous seven-year quest to build on the waterfront. Chiofaro even invited aquarium CEO Nigella Hillgarth and her representatives to a lunch in October in his office tower complex International Place.
Aquarium officials laid out their plan with the expectation that Chiofaro would show them his. But they did most of the talking and left disappointed. At the very least, aquarium officials hoped to get a sense of whether Chiofaro would agree to work with them on creating the Blueway.
“He has not said yes or no,” said Hillgarth.
Feeling left in the dark, the aquarium went back on the offensive this week, reiterating the objections laid out in a scathing four-page letter it sent to the city in June 2015.
I tried to catch up with Chiofaro on Thursday, but he was walking out of International Place in a hurry for a boys’ hunting trip in Texas. He told me he had read Hillgarth’s letter and would have his son, Donald Jr., follow up with me.
“I love Nigella,” Chiofaro said as he hopped into a cab. “She is a lot of fun.”
Don Jr., who is vice president at The Chiofaro Co., stuck to the script. Which is this: There will be no new Harbor Garage design until the municipal harbor plan process is finished. There might not be a new design until the state environmental officials weigh in since the state ultimately has to approve the city’s harbor plan.
So do the Chiofaros want to work with the aquarium?
“We want to,” said Don Chiofaro Jr., “as soon as we know what we have to work with.”
It’s a no-win situation for almost everyone involved. Chiofaro wants to build a massive complex of housing, retail, and offices. The city of Boston, in its draft of the municipal harbor plan, has proposed allowing Chiofaro to build as high as 600 feet — far above what is currently allowed on the waterfront.
If the city is going to make such an exception, the aquarium simply wants to know what Chiofaro plans to do on that site; otherwise the aquarium will remain in vocal opposition to the municipal harbor plan.
But Chiofaro is hesitant to release yet another plan — he’s already commissioned 99 versions — until the planning process is further along. He is not required to file a design related to the municipal harbor plan.
Caught in the middle is the city of Boston, specifically the Boston Planning & Development Agency. City Hall desperately wants peace on the waterfront; who wants to get on the wrong side of the penguins?
Aquarium officials have made their case to the agency formerly known as the BRA to lean on Chiofaro to produce a design. Not surprisingly, Richard McGuinness, who oversees waterfront planning, didn’t want to get on the phone with me at the risk of getting caught in the middle.
“In an ideal world, the city would like us to all work it out,” said Eric Krauss, the aquarium’s chief operating and financial officer.
So another year will pass without any sense of what Chiofaro is going to build on this pivotal part of the waterfront.
Maybe next year.