The plan for the last big chunk of developable land in the Seaport needs more work, especially when it comes to public space.
City officials responded late Friday to WS Development’s plan for 13 acres it owns along Seaport Boulevard, urging it to be take full advantage of what may be one of the last opportunities to create open space in the heart of the booming business district.
The Boston Planning & Development Agency encouraged WS Development to amend its proposal for a linear plaza lined with shops along three blocks from Summer Street to Northern Avenue. While the strip, known as Harbor Way, would be the centerpiece of WS Development’s project, supplanting a 1.25-acre park that was part of an earlier plan, it risks being too closed-off as currently designed, the BPDA said.
“Harbor Way, while a promising pedestrian link, is not fundamentally public open space in the way that the original plan intended,” BPDA planning staff wrote in a memo. “Harbor Way has become more akin to an outdoor pedestrian plaza.”
The memo also notes that Harbor Way would not reach the harbor — the last block along the waterfront is owned by a different developer — and suggests that leaving the block between Seaport Boulevard and Northern Avenue open to vehicular traffic, while having green space jog over a block to connect with Fan Pier Park.
The BPDA’s concerns speak to a common complaint about the Seaport as it has grown over the past decade: that there is too little park space, and too much of what does exist feels like it belongs to the denizens of the adjacent glass towers, not to the public.
“This has got to feel like everybody’s public realm,” said Jon Greeley, the BPDA’s director of development review. “It has to feel like it’s open and welcoming to all.”
WS Development’s senior vice president for the Seaport, Yanni Tsipis, said the company would take the BPDA’s concerns under advisement and come back with revisions “in the very near future.”
“We agree with the city’s focus on transportation and public realm improvements, and are pleased to be moving forward with the process of creating a beautiful series of public places in the Seaport,” Tsipis said in a statement.
The report touched on another hot-button issue in the Seaport Square project, saying that WS Development must clarify its plan for District Hall, which sits on its land.
The startup hub was planned as a temporary facility, to be replaced by park space after 10 years. In its proposal earlier this year, WS Development made no mention of District Hall but planned to add a 100,000 square-foot office building on the same block, across a small park. That raised questions about District Hall’s future, and how the project might make room for both the popular civic space and for parks.
The BPDA urged the developer to solve that puzzle. A park is “still the preferred use,” the agency wrote, but District Hall has become “a beloved fixture” of the neighborhood. Any plan for that block would need to account for both, the agency wrote.
There may not be room for a large performing arts center, however, as was previously planned. WS Development has signaled that it’s likely to ditch those earlier, approved plans for a 200,000-square-foot theater. It now says a collection of smaller arts venues would better fit the neighborhood and the needs of the arts community. The BPDA appears to agree.
In a letter as part of the report, two top BPDA officials wrote that the city’s arts landscape has changed significantly since that performing arts center was approved in 2010. They urged WS to study a range of options — as well as long-term funding and perhaps an endowment — to keep theaters affordable to cash-strapped nonprofits.
A number of arts groups, particularly the Boston Lyric Opera, which is newly homeless after 18 years at the Shubert Theater, wrote to the BPDA to ask that performance space be mandated in Seaport Square. Greeley said the city is encouraging WS Development to study a variety of small and mid-size venues.
“What we heard was a need for spaces that can do a lot of different things,” Greeley said. “We’re not trying to be prescriptive. We’re really looking forward to sitting down with WS, rolling up our sleeves, and figuring this out.”