Boston has new rules to help buildings withstand climate change

A parking lot on Long Wharf was one of many stretches of downtown Boston that flooded during a storm in January.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
A parking lot on Long Wharf was one of many stretches of downtown Boston that flooded during a storm in January.

Memories of the storm last winter that flooded parts of downtown Boston are still fresh at City Hall. Now, the Walsh administration is pushing developers to make their buildings better able to withstand another watery apocalypse.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency on Thursday approved new rules to make big buildings more resilient to the effects of climate change. City officials hope the measures will help minimize flooding, keep the lights on in more buildings during power outages, and make it easier to upgrade street lights and other public works.

“We think we’ve identified a way forward that appears to be the first of its kind in the nation,” said Brian Golden, the agency’s director.


The rules are initially being tested for a two-year period and differ for projects based on size. For the largest developments — at least 1.5 million square feet — developers will need to assess installing an on-site power plant, and build one if it’s financially feasible. They will also have to consolidate all wiring for cable, Internet, and other telecom services into one underground tube, so there is less disruption to streets and sidewalks during repairs.

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Any new development above 100,000 square feet will have to retain more rainfall than currently required, to help prevent runoff during storms from contributing to floods in the surrounding area. In 2017, the planning agency received applications for 39 projects over 100,000 square feet.

Meanwhile, developers for projects above 50,000 square feet would need to install extra wiring and technology for “smart” traffic signals and street lights if the projects require new or improved signals or lights.

The agency’s work on this policy began about two years ago. But recent storms have added to the urgency.

Golden said the rules could also help reduce traffic jams caused by construction, by requiring more coordination for underground utility work.


He said developers offered input during the process; HYM Investment Group, for example, expects to use these standards for a complex it will build at the old Suffolk Downs track.

But the development industry’s chief local lobbying group, NAIOP Massachusetts, is pushing back, opposing both the on-site power and stormwater retention requirements.

“To increase this holding capacity is a bit problematic,” chief executive David Begelfer said of the new rainwater rule. “Boston’s an old urban city. It’s very dense.”

Matthew Kiefer, a development lawyer with Goulston & Storrs, said it could be hard to connect on-site power supplies with the local electricity grid. “We’ve talked to clients who have tried to do it in different settings,” Kiefer said. “It’s kind of challenging.”

While Kiefer applauded some of the agency’s goals, he said city officials should in exchange allow developers to build bigger projects to compensate for the added expense.


“I would be careful about adding too many costs to developments,” Keifer said. “When the market starts to soften a little bit, can you really support the costs of these things?”

Jon Chesto can be reached at