The new owners of the last major undeveloped swath of land in the Seaport District are planning a pedestrian promenade they hope will finally give the seemingly formless business district something of a spine.
Dubbed “Harbor Way,” the tree-lined thoroughfare would extend one-third of a mile, from an elevated section of Summer Street, down a staircase, and across the neighborhood to the edge of the waterfront. For much of its length, the walkway would thread through new buildings, with restaurants and stores contributing to the street life along it.
It would add a long, thin strip of open space to the Seaport, where just a few small parks and plazas, the Institute for Contemporary Art, and the publicly accessible District Hall have been carved out amid massive, blocky mid-rise office and apartment buildings.
The walkway is part of a larger plan that WS Development unveiled Thursday night for the remaining unbuilt portion of the 23-acre property known as Seaport Square, situated in the center of the budding neighborhood. This portion of the buildout would include nine blocks of new buildings on what is now a mix of parking lots and construction staging areas along Boston Wharf Road and Seaport Boulevard. The mix of office and residential buildings and hotels would also include more than 100 new storefronts at the street and lower levels.
“Our vision for the Seaport is focused on creating soul for the district,” said Yanni Tsipis, who’s leading the project for WS Development. “This means building buildings whose beauty and elegance will stand the test of time, and infusing every city block with restaurants, boutiques, residents, workplaces, and most importantly with diverse civic and cultural uses, all set amidst an extraordinary public realm.”
The lack of public space has long been a knock on the Seaport. The original master plan for Seaport Square envisioned a larger but more conventionally shaped park in the center of a four-building section of the development.
WS Development has reconfigured that open space to be narrower but longer, and friendlier to foot traffic. The buildings along the pathway will have fewer right angles, and their curvy design should let more light onto the walkway and nearby streets. The width of the walkway will vary but will be around 70 feet in many places, Tsipis said.
The developer is also planning to landscape Seaport Boulevard toward downtown and is considering public art to soften all the hard edges of new construction.
“They really seem to be paying attention to aesthetics and open spaces and connectivity,” said Kathy Abbott, chief executive of the outdoor advocacy group Boston Harbor Now, who was briefed on the new plans earlier this week. “They really seem to be listening to the criticisms that have been raised to date.”
But some who’ve watched development in the neighborhood are concerned the final buildout will result in less public space than was originally contemplated.
Fort Point resident and activist Steve Hollinger notes that the original master plan for Seaport Square approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency had a “performing arts center” of at least 200,000 square feet in one of the yet-to-be-built buildings. He urged city officials to hold WS to that requirement and create a substantial cultural space.
“I’d like to see something on the scale of the Boston Center for the Arts” in the South End, Hollinger said. “Anything less than a signature destination represents a lack of vision and responsibility at the Boston Planning & Development Agency.”
Tsipis said WS Development is still working on specific plans for each of the nine new buildings and will file more details with the city agency later in February. The company is reducing the number of parking spaces by about 900, to 5,500, and will invest in shuttle service, bike lanes, and pedestrian improvements to reduce the effects of car traffic.
WS hopes to break ground on the first new building by year’s end, Tsipis said, and build out all nine blocks over the next five to seven years, with the walkway pieced together in stages. At the end, Tsipis predicted the Seaport will finally feel like a true neighborhood.
“Great cities are made up of great neighborhoods,” he said. “We are honored to be responsible for weaving a small part of the neighborhood that will continue to make Boston the great city that it is.”