With state approvals behind it — and despite likely lawsuits to come — The Chiofaro Co. is pushing ahead with planning for a long-debated 600-foot-high building at the edge of Boston Harbor.
But images released by the development firm Tuesday don't show the tower itself. Instead, the firm released images of open space it would build on a site partly covered by the Boston Harbor Garage. The plaza, developer Don Chiofaro said, would increase public access to the waterfront and create a signature space along the harbor.
"We have an unbelievable opportunity at Central Wharf," said Chiofaro, referring to the area covered by the garage and a larger area controlled by the neighboring New England Aquarium. "There's only one way to unlock that opportunity, and that's to take the garage down."
It's a case Chiofaro has been making for nearly a decade, since he first proposed a skyscraper on the site of the blocky concrete garage. After much debate with neighbors and other advocates, the city and state earlier this year approved zoning rules for a 42-acre stretch of the waterfront, including the garage site. But that didn't settle the discussion.
The nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation said last week that it plans to challenge the plan in court, as did residents of the neighboring Harbor Towers condominium complex. Both argue the zoning plan offers too little in public benefits to justify a 600-foot-high tower on the water's edge, an area where the tallest buildings have typically been one-fourth that height, and could set a precedent for more towers like it.
The CLF filed a similar lawsuit against a condo tower at 150 Seaport Boulevard that slowed that project for months, before reaching a $13 million settlement with the developer.
Despite the suits, Chiofaro said he aims to begin the process of seeking Boston Planning & Development Agency approvals this summer, after the zoning plan wins its final city approval. He is laying the groundwork by sharing new drawings of his plans for the first time in years. His architects are still working on designs for the tower itself, so the renderings released Tuesday depict just the busy plaza at its base, with improvements both to Chiofaro's site and to neighboring land he doesn't control.
They build on a plan the aquarium unveiled in 2016 for a so-called Blueway at its front door on Central Wharf. But the aquarium said Tuesday that Chiofaro hadn't consulted it before releasing the images, and that his vision was "a complete expropriation" of what the aquarium had previously proposed.
"The renderings presented by Chiofaro Company are a misrepresentation of the aquarium's property and future," said Donna Hazard, chair of the aquarium's board of trustees. "Instead of providing images and basic details of his own proposed development as requested by neighbors for years, the Chiofaro Company saw fit to redesign their neighbors' property and present it to the public without any consultation or notice. We consider this a breach of faith."
Hazard said the aquarium is still negotiating an agreement would protect the nonprofit during construction. Basic terms of that deal were included as part of the zoning plan, but some important details — as well as plans for the Blueway — remain unresolved.
A key sticking point could be the aquarium's IMAX theater, which in Chiofaro's images is replaced by grass, water, and seating. Removing the theater has been discussed, but an aquarium spokesman said any decision on the theater's fate is far in the future.
"The New England Aquarium is not in partnership with the Chiofaro Company," Hazard said. "We are a wary neighbor."