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Round two for harborfront skyscrapers begins

State environmental regulators gave a go-ahead for a new zoning plan for a 42-acre stretch of the Boston waterfront running from Long Wharf to the Moakley Bridge.
State environmental regulators gave a go-ahead for a new zoning plan for a 42-acre stretch of the Boston waterfront running from Long Wharf to the Moakley Bridge.Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe

It only took a decade, but zoning for a key stretch of Boston's downtown waterfront finally got the green light from state environmental regulators Monday, giving developer Don Chiofaro long-awaited permission to move forward on a 600-foot tower near the New England Aquarium.

Now comes round two.

State Environmental Secretary Matt Beaton approved the city of Boston's new zoning plan for a 42-acre stretch of the waterfront running from Long Wharf to the Moakley Bridge. The new rules will allow larger buildings on two sites in particular, the Harbor Garage on Atlantic where Chiofaro would place a $1.3 billion skyscraper, and the Hook Lobster site at the foot of the Northern Avenue bridge, where the Hook family is partnering with developers to propose a 305-foot tower.

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The plan would also set aside more open space in the area, including funding for a "signature" park along the historic Chart House on Long Wharf.

The state essentially endorsed a city plan that came after five years of public meetings and closed-door wrangling. The developers must now go back to City Hall and file specific building proposals, probably inviting yet more pushback from neighbors and interest groups.

Chiofaro said he expects to file specifics for his tower "pretty quickly."

"We think this is a good start and we're looking forward to working with everyone to make a great project," Chiofaro said. "We're eager to get going."

The state approval also enshrines a deal that Chiofaro struck to protect the Aquarium from lost business if construction makes it too difficult for visitors to get to the popular attraction. He has agreed to create a fund worth up to $30 million to recoup lost revenue, and to permanently set aside parking for Aquarium visitors in his new building, as well as contribute $10 million to proposed a "Blue Way" park the Aquarium plans to build on Central Wharf.

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The Aquarium said in a statement that it appreciated Beaton "taking the time to understand our concerns" and working them into the agreement.

"We expect to move forward as firm advocates for these and related survivability points in our ongoing conversations with the developer," the Aquarium said.

Other opposition remains.

However, the plan does little to mollify Chiofaro's other neighbors — particularly residents of the Harbor Towers condominiums, who are concerned about parking, open space, and other impacts that Chiofaro's tower could have on the bustling patch of waterfront. Lee Kozol, who chairs a committee of Harbor Tower residents, said he was "disappointed" in the state ruling, saying it failed to protect public access to the waterfront.

"We will consider our options," Kozol said.

Beaton also had concerns about the Hook Lobster site, specifically whether a short in-fill section of the Harborwalk would be submerged at times because of rising sea levels. Rather than a walkway running below the Moakley Bridge — as was first proposed — Beaton suggested improving pedestrian access along Atlantic Avenue. He also recommended the developer provide $3 million for a new park and water transportation terminal on Long Wharf.

Boston Planning & Development Agency's director, Brian Golden, hailed Beaton's ruling, noting that four years, and 40-plus public meetings, went into the plan in a bid to balance new development with access to Boston Harbor.

"The significant amount of community and stakeholder input resulted in a plan that will strengthen Boston's downtown waterfront for decades to come," he said in a statement. "The plan ensures that new development along the waterfront promotes public access, activates the public realm, and creates new open space."

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