Sign up for the Talking Points newsletter, a carefully curated recap of the most important business news, delivered fresh each afternoon, Monday through Friday.
We end 2016 the way we started: fussing over the details of Don Chiofaro’s harbor garage project.
The latest twist is that the city might require more open space on the site than it previously proposed, reducing the footprint of what Chiofaro could build. The potential adjustment comes after the Boston Planning & Development Agency sifted through hundreds of community comment letters and found that neighbors and activists clamored for more open space on the downtown waterfront, where the $1 billion project would go, next to the New England Aquarium.
The state sets a minimum requirement of 50 percent open space on the Boston waterfront to ensure public access, but that number can modified on a case-by-case basis. The city has proposed allowing Chiofaro to provide just 30 percent of open space but is now considering 40 percent. That would squeeze the development footprint of the building.
“We are re-examining the lot coverage on the garage site with the overall goal of maximizing open space along side the goal of feasibility,” said Sara Myerson, BPDA’s director of planning.
So can Chiofaro live with that number?
The last time the city set parameters on his site — capping the amount of development at 900,000 square feet — Chiofaro squawked about how the project might not be financially feasible. He had wanted 1.3 million square feet on the parcel, where he has proposed building office space, housing, a hotel, and shops.
This time Chiofaro, who is aware of the potential lot size change, is being zen about it.
“We have an open mind, and we are confident — as long as everything else works — we can make something good happen,” Chiofaro said Wednesday as we talked in a conference room on the 46th floor of his International Place complex.
The new attitude is perhaps a sign that Chiofaro senses he’s close to getting through a major part of the city planning process and he doesn’t want to screw things up. Chiofaro bought the garage in 2009 with the hope of redeveloping the hulking eyesore that sits between the aquarium and the Harbor Towers.
But then he picked a fight with then Mayor Tom Menino, the one person in town who could have moved the garage project along. Menino never liked Chiofaro’s plans because the mayor didn’t want skyscrapers to wall off the waterfront or cast shadows over the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
Chiofaro found himself boxed out until he found a receptive ear in Menino’s successor, Marty Walsh. Hizzoner gave his blessing for Chiofaro to build up to 600 feet tall on the waterfront, far above what is currently allowed.
The reexamination of open space on Chiofaro’s site comes as the city wraps up a three-year process to create new zoning rules for the waterfront, from Long Wharf to the Evelyn Moakley bridge. Comments on the draft harbor plan were due earlier this month, and the city planning agency is expected to make a final call early next year. State regulators will then need to approve the plan.
But even with the city’s push for more open space, some waterfront advocates don’t think the city is going far enough. The Wharf District Council, which represents condo owners and businesses along the waterfront, is calling for the city to hew closer to the state’s 50 percent requirement, as are Boston State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, Boston Harbor Now, and the Conservation Law Foundation.
The district council even had an architect draw up a design to show how Chiofaro could build a project with only 50 percent lot coverage.
“There is no reason a building needs to cover that much of the ground plane,” said Marc Margulies, chair of the Wharf District Council. “When it does, it gobbles up all the public realm.”
Now 50 percent is a number that does give Chiofaro and his team pause.
“It is absolutely physically possible, but it is not the optimal outcome for that site,” said Rob Caridad, the Chiofaro Co. executive who is project manager for the garage development.
Chiofaro’s son, Donald Jr., who is vice president at his father’s company, explained that 50 percent lot coverage would mean the ground floor would consist primarily of a lobby and service entrances, leaving little room for public amenities like restaurants.
He offered up how Atlantic Wharf is able to load up on restaurants on the ground floor, including Trade and Smith & Wollensky, in part because the city allowed lot coverage to exceed 70 percent.
“It’s a balancing act, and it’s a planning decision,” Chiofaro Jr. said, “and it’s a mistake to go to 50 percent.”
One Chiofaro adversary — the aquarium — isn’t jumping on the 50 percent bandwagon. But the popular destination continues to maintain that the project is too big and that the developer should reveal a design. (Chiofaro wants to hold off until the city and state have a firmer harbor plan.)
I know that Don Chiofaro wasn’t too happy with my column about the aquarium’s latest comments on the draft harbor plan. I guess I could have pointed out the beloved institution is playing hardball as it pushes its own master plan for open space and prepares to negotiate with the developer.
But given the opportunity to say what’s really on his mind about his relationship with the aquarium, Chiofaro demurs. Instead, he leaves others to fill in the blanks.
“Our instinct is to fight back,” said Caridad, “but we want to get past the fighting and move on to the friendship.”
No one wants hasty development, but the Boston Harbor Garage saga has dragged on too long. The city, Chiofaro, and his neighbors need to work this out. Let’s make 2017 the year.