Business & Tech

Group seeks to delay zoning that would allow waterfront tower

The Harbor Garage is seen from the Harbor in Boston, Massachusetts October 1, 2013. (Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe)

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2013

Developer Don Chiofaro plans to replace the Boston Harbor Garage with a 600-foot tower. The Conservation Law Foundation wants the state to delay reviewing city zoning that would allow the project to be built.

One day after the city passed a downtown waterfront zoning plan that would allow a 600-foot tower next to the New England Aquarium, an environmental group moved to put any development in the area on hold.

The Conservation Law Foundation on Friday asked state environmental officials to delay their required review of the regulations until the group’s lawsuit challenging a project in the nearby Seaport District is resolved.

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In a letter to Matthew Beaton, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, CLF senior counsel Peter Shelley wrote that the department overstepped its powers in December when it approved a condo tower at 150 Seaport Blvd. in South Boston.

Shelley suggested that Beaton would be making the same mistake if he gave the green light to the downtown zoning changes the city approved Thursday.

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Those rules cover a stretch of harborfront from Long Wharf to the Moakley Bridge, including the site next to the aquarium where developer Don Chiofaro wants to remake the Boston Harbor Garage into offices, residences, and stores.

Shelley said Saturday that his group is concerned that Massachusetts laws are being overlooked as state and local officials approve waterfront projects in South Boston and downtown. The laws, known as Chapter 91, are designed to protect public access to the waterfront and negotiate public benefits from those who build there.

“In Boston in particular, the process seems to have become very developer-driven,” Shelley said. “That’s not what Chapter 91 was set up to support.”

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Shelley said it would be better to wait until the 150 Seaport Blvd. case is resolved in court before the state considers the downtown plan.

“It has been the same illegal process. It has all the same issues,” Shelley said. “If they go ahead and approve it, we’ll likely add it to our lawsuit, too.”

A spokesman for Beaton’s office said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency’s board approved the downtown plan Thursday and hasn’t submitted it to the state yet, a spokeswoman said.

The state’s review is expected to take several months and would include public hearings.

But CLF’s quick legal threat signals a bumpy road ahead for the plan, and for Chiofaro. The developer and city officials worked for four years to negotiate the new city zoning for his tower. They can’t formally propose a building until the state approves the new zoning rules, and even then construction would probably still be years away.

Critics, including some neighbors and waterfront groups, worry that Chiofaro’s project could wall off the harbor, disrupt existing businesses such as the aquarium, and set a precedent for more very tall buildings close to the water’s edge. They have vowed to continue to challenge the plan at the state level.

A Chiofaro spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the CLF’s letter.

The influential environmental group has stepped up its waterfront advocacy in recent months, emerging as the leading critic of 150 Seaport, a 22-story luxury condo tower proposed by restaurateur Jon Cronin on a tiny site now home to his Whiskey Priest and Atlantic Beer Garden restaurants. Late last year, the CLF received a $330,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to “plan for a multiyear waterfront campaign.”

In a statement issued after the CLF went to court against 150 Seaport, Cronin’s firm said the group “has been an outlier, and its opposition to the project is at odds with the way the project has been received by the public, neighbors, waterfront activists, the city of Boston, and the state.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com.
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