As a boy growing up in New Jersey, Amos Hostetter spent much of his childhood around the ocean, fishing, sailing, and lifeguarding in the unfussy beach town of Bay Head.
As a young man in 1969, the Harvard Business School alumnus moved his fledgling cable television company into an old towboat house on the edge of Lewis Wharf in Boston, when the area was still a working waterfront of produce warehouses. After he married his wife, Barbara, they lived in a condo nearby, and took their three children to play at Christopher Columbus Park and the New England Aquarium. He speaks of an “appreciation, almost reverence, for open spaces and access to salt water” that runs in his family.
And now Hostetter, 80, one of the wealthiest men in Boston, has emerged as the most powerful counterweight to a surge of waterfront development that he fears will block future generations from enjoying the kind of access to the water he has long cherished.
“He’s been the only person willing to take on these kind of issues,” said Vivien Li, who long ran the Boston Harbor Association before taking a new job in Pittsburgh last year.
Over the past eight months, Hostetter’s Barr Foundation has financed groups that are trying to tone down most of the major development projects planned near Boston Harbor, including a 22-story tower called 150 Seaport in South Boston and Don Chiofaro’s massive complex near the aquarium. Hostetter himself has joined hundreds of neighbors to lobby officials against a hotel planned for the end of Lewis Wharf, where his office remains to this day.
The foundation even has a connection to the powerful agency that referees big building in the city, providing funds for waterfront planning at the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
The push into the nitty-gritty politics of city planning is a bit of a departure for Hostetter, who has made few headlines since retiring from the cable industry and launching the foundation nearly two decades ago. If it has turned the billionaire into a quiet hero for those who prize access to the waterfront, it has also rankled some in Boston’s influential development community.
“There’s no question that Amos’s fingerprints are everywhere,” said John Moriarty, the owner of a construction company involved in both the Lewis Wharf and 150 Seaport projects. “We’re in this time of flux on the waterfront, largely because of the Barr Foundation.”
While Moriarty said he likes and respects Hostetter and has discussed the Lewis Wharf hotel with him, he hopes the Barr Foundation’s campaign doesn’t reinforce Boston’s reputation as a difficult place for developers to build big projects.
“They seem to want to stop everything,” he said.
The hurly-burly of City Hall is a new arena for Hostetter, who has long kept a relatively low profile in Boston’s business circles. The Barr Foundation has grown to be among Boston’s biggest and most influential philanthropies, doling out $834 million since 1999. But for years it gave money away quietly, often anonymously. Friends say Hostetter is a bit of an old Yankee — smart, down-to-earth, and no flash — despite his fortune. He declined interview requests for this story, but did answer some questions by e-mail.
“He doesn’t seek the spotlight,” said media industry veteran Phil Balboni, who launched New England Cable News with financing from Hostetter. “He’s not ostentatious. He’s not into boats or planes. That’s just not his style.”
He has, though, become a major force in Boston civic life through the foundation, which has long focused its grants on education, environmental programs, and the arts. The foundation raised its profile in 2014 with the hiring of a new president, Jim Canales, a veteran foundation executive from California who has taken a far more public approach than his predecessors.
Hostetter himself has waded more directly into civic matters, cochairing the Boston Green Ribbon Commission on climate change and leading a transition committee in 2014 advising the newly elected mayor, Martin J. Walsh, on environmental issues.
“I think that was a turning point. He sat for hours and cochaired these public meetings. He heard from a lot of people,” said Li, the former Boston waterfront advocate. “It also gave him direct access to the mayor.”
Last spring, the foundation announced it was adding waterfront planning to its agenda. Too much development, Canales said, was being planned parcel by parcel, with no one asking larger questions about the future of building along Boston Harbor.
“We need to articulate a clearer vision for what the waterfront can be,” he said. “It’s important for us to approach this from a long-term view.”
Since then, the Barr Foundation has been handing out money. It gave $350,000 to the advocacy group Boston Harbor Now and $1.7 million to the Trustees of Reservations, to plan harbor parks. There was $330,000 from Barr for waterfront work at the Conservation Law Foundation — on top of about $6 million for climate change issues since 2013 — and $210,000 to the Boston Planning & Development Agency to boost waterfront planning in the Imagine Boston 2030 plan. More grants are coming, Canales said.
And while the foundation has stayed out of the fray on specific projects, its recipients have dived in.
The Conservation Law Foundation, for instance, has threatened to sue to stop 150 Seaport, the luxury condo tower proposed by restaurateur Jon Cronin. The group fears it would further wall off the waterfront in the Seaport District. Boston Harbor Now and the New England Aquarium — where Barbara Hostetter has long served on the board, and whose chief operating office, Eric Krauss, worked for Amos Hostetter’s companies for years — have been battling Chiofaro over his proposed skyscraper on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage.
Hostetter himself is among hundreds of neighborhood critics of a 277-room hotel that JW Capital wants to build on the edge of Lewis Wharf, in partnership with Moriarty’s construction company. Hostetter’s attorneys filed a 48-page letter to state environmental officials raising a raft of concerns about the project, including its construction over pilings that sit below water at high tide.
Those worries were echoed by state officials in September, when they ruled that building over submerged pilings probably violates state law, dealing the Lewis Wharf project a major blow; a final ruling is expected in coming months. And the Boston planning agency has answered some of the aquarium’s concerns about Chiofaro’s tower by requiring the project to have more open space at street level.
But the Barr Foundation and its allies haven’t won every round.
The 150 Seaport project, for instance, has received approvals from both the city planning agency and Massachusetts environmental regulators, over fierce objections from the Conservation Law Foundation.
And the zoning rules that would mandate more open space at the foot of Chiofaro’s tower would also enable it to rise to 600 feet high and be the tallest building on Boston Harbor.
Canales stresses that the Barr Foundation is not antidevelopment. Rather, he said, the foundation wants to see planning that takes the whole area into account, not just individual projects, and that pushes for more public space and amenities.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Hostetter wrote that his focus on waterfront planning is merely the latest in a long line of “pro-environment causes and efforts to thoughtfully develop our city’s few remaining open spaces.”
He and his wife have always loved the water, Hostetter wrote, and made a point of raising their children around it. They are “deeply committed” to helping others do the same.
“Our current engagement in these issues should not be a surprise to anyone,” Hostetter wrote. “On the contrary, it is emblematic of what we care about.”