Charlestown looks at bringing new life to an old navy yard
Floating classrooms. A casino boat-turned-tech hub. A 185-foot-high Ferris wheel.
These concepts probably don’t come to mind when you think of the Charlestown Navy Yard. But they did for Dedham developer Jake Upton.
Upton + Partners joined five other proponents at a community meeting last week to pitch their visions for the 135-acre former Navy base. They range from the mundane — a kayak rental dock — to the massive — Upton’s three-boat miniarmada, which includes a floating hotel of sorts. Residents seemed eager to enliven the yard’s brick sidewalks and weather-beaten piers. The Ferris wheel? That turned out to be a much tougher sell.
The South Boston Waterfront may hog the limelight these days. But city officials are turning their attention to Charlestown’s historic Navy Yard, where nearly 2,000 people live. The Boston Planning & Development Agency recently put out a request for proposals to “activate,” in planner-speak, the waterfront area and is accepting input on the private sector responses until Jan. 1.
Some concepts were more ambitious than city planners expected. They originally sought ways to bring a little more life to that part of the city, they say, not bold economic development proposals. Now they have both.
One developer, Edward Cardinali, is working with the Charles River Canoe & Kayak folks on the boat launch. The USS Constitution Museum wants to install art exhibits in its windows and outside its doors. Anthem Group would build a beer garden and hold a fall “fire festival” that seems somewhat akin to Providence’s famed “WaterFire.”
Balance Architects and the Navy Yard Hospitality Group proposed docking a sailboat at Dry Dock 2 that would be a floating restaurant, with room for 200 people, and hanging lights across the water there. Their plan also mentions a farmers market, fishing, food trucks, and fitness activities.
The most ambitious proposals came from Upton and construction firm DC Beane and Associates. DC Beane proposes improvements throughout the yard, from floating docks to a new events pavilion. And then there is Upton’s proposal, with its repurposed boats and wheel in the sky. Two of the boats would have restaurants. One could house coworking space, or a unique home base for a local tech firm. The other would feature “flexible living” space, such as short-term corporate apartments or extended-stay hotel rooms. (A third vessel would feature up to 28 classrooms and other educational spaces.) A spokeswoman says Upton is open to pursuing just pieces of the plan, and isn’t wedded to particular spots.
Michael Parker, chairman of the Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard, says neighbors hope to see new amenities as a result. Rehabbing the Harborwalk and reopening the fenced-off Pier 5 are priorities, he says, that could be addressed by an influx of private sector cash. However, many residents are apprehensive about the scale and scope. The Ferris wheel became a particular focal point for concerns, particularly in the prominent area where it is proposed, overlooking Dry Dock 2.
City planners say they’ll take a two-pronged approach from here: They will try to get some simpler things going by next summer, and work closely with neighbors to explore the bigger ideas.
And so they start the balancing act. The Charlestown Navy Yard can resemble a museum to some extent, seemingly frozen in time. But it’s also an urban neighborhood, open to change and evolution. While relying too heavily on residents’ input could paralyze planning and limit the potential, the planning agency also knows full well the risks of not paying close enough attention to them.