Business

shirley leung

A last chance to add life to Seaport

A rendering of the "Harbor Way" promenade in Seaport Square that will stretch from the waterfront to Summer Street. The buildings are for illustration purposes only and have not been designed.

WS Development

In an illustration, the developer of a 23-acre parcel in the Seaport showed its proposed “Harbor Way” promenade.

The pressure is on to do something special in the Seaport District, and Dick Marks feels it.

He’s one of the partners of WS Development, which plunked down $359 million in 2015 to develop the rest of Seaport Square in one of the priciest land deals ever in Boston.

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“We get the chance to do it once,” said Marks showing off his plan Monday in a conference room at the firm’s Chestnut Hill headquarters overlooking one of its outdoor malls, The Street. “We want to do it right.”

The pressure is real. Seaport Square is a 23-acre parcel that stretches from Northern Avenue to Summer Street and represents the last chance for the district to save itself from becoming a sea of generic office and condo buildings and a playground for those who can only afford it. Half of the massive development is under construction, and details of the next phase are being hammered out with a series of public meetings that begin on Thursday.

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So it comes down to this: Our hopes for giving South Boston Waterfront a soul will ride on a firm best known for reimagining suburban retail. Think of its Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham or Legacy Place in Dedham.

Oh, boy.

Don’t get me wrong. I am patron of those outdoor malls, but making something out of the suburbs is not the same as trying to create the next great neighborhood in Boston.

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Perhaps realizing that expectations are high, WS has engaged a trio of architectural firms — Sasaki Associates, NADAAA, and James Corner Field Operations — to come up with a bold vision. Field Operations is the outfit behind the much-buzzed about High Line, an old elevated railroad that was converted into a popular park in New York City.

WS thinks Boston’s answer to Manhattan’s High Line is the Harbor Way, a tree-lined pedestrian promenade that will connect Summer Street to the water’s edge by Fan Pier. The thoroughfare will extend a third of a mile through Seaport Square and hook up with the HarborWalk in an attempt to finally make the Seaport District pedestrian friendly.

But the Harbor Way doesn’t come without controversy. In creating this public space, WS proposes to kill Seaport Hill Park, which was envisioned as a grassy respite from gleaming towers that will ring the area. Also gone is a massive cultural component in the form of a 200,000-square-foot performing arts center.

Looking at what was filed with the City of Boston last week, you can already feel tempers flaring from some waterfront advocates, a sense of deja vu all over again in how grand plans get hijacked by developers wanting to pad profits.

One chart shows how WS’s proposed changes will boost overall development by 1.3 million square feet — or a whopping 17 percent increase — with more office space and residential units; meanwhile, the plan reduces cultural and civic space to a minimum of 16,200 square feet.

Marks explains the cultural component was never a requirement, merely a recommendation subject to demand and funding. Absent of an organization stepping forward with a proposal, WS isn’t planning to develop a signature arts center. Rather it will push the concept of a cultural corridor with a series of smaller venues, and will begin the process of soliciting proposals.

“We want to work with specific organizations,” said Yanni Tsipis, the WS vice president overseeing the waterfront project. As for the amount of cultural space Seaport Square will ultimately have, “we don’t know what the answer is,” he said.

So here we go again leaving it up to the developer to do the right thing.

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So here we go again leaving it up to the developer to do the right thing. The city would be better served in putting its foot down on a cultural requirement; perhaps 200,000 square feet is too big, but certainly 16,200 square feet feels likes another Brinks heist in the making.

As for the Harbor Way, the idea of a linear park that connects one end of the Seaport District to another is a good one. But the challenge will be how to make sure this public space, which will be maintained and programmed by a private entity, feels like it belongs to everyone.

Consider Fan Pier’s “Public Green” on the water’s edge. The city has designated that part of the privately-owned Fan Pier as open space in perpetuity, but the grassy patch can feel so manicured you wondered if anyone wants you to set foot on it.

The challenge for WS is to design a park that doesn’t feel like you have to pay to play. In other words, you only belong on the Harbor Way if you work or live in in the complex, or choose to shop or eat there. The other cautionary tale for Harbor Way is how to avoid becoming another Faneuil Hall Marketplace — a great place for tourists but not so much for the locals.

WS’s renderings seem inviting: trees, large rocks, a fancy wooden walkway. Part of the Harbor Way also flows into a large square that can be turned into an ice rink in the winter or a farmer’s market in the summer.

The risk of relying on private hands to maintain a public space is not lost on city officials. Jonathan Greeley, director of development review at the Boston Planning & Development Agency, described it as the city’s top design concern with the WS plan.

“How do we make sure this feels like the public’s promenade and not WS’s?" Greeley pondered, adding that Seaport Square’s “success or failure depends on how do you attract all Bostonians to the area.”

Greeley said the city believes WS can make it a democratic space with the right design and programming. Already, WS has a full-time staffer dedicated to creating free programming in public spaces, from pop-up art to yoga. Greeley also points out that privately maintained parks can be successful, most notably the open space in Post Office Square.

The Southie waterfront is reaching its inflection point. Whether the district feels like the Financial District or the Back Bay will likely hinge on this project. Let’s get this right.

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