No one said redeveloping an old power plant in a booming urban neighborhood would be easy. But the owners of the old Edison complex in South Boston are finding out just how tough it can be.
They face a new potential adversary, now that the Conservation Law Foundation is wading in. The environmental organization — armed, as always, with a phalanx of staff attorneys — is making waves about the 15-acre waterfront development and its potential impact on the working port.
CLF president Bradley Campbell expressed his concerns in a letter to the Massachusetts Port Authority on Monday. Massport doesn’t own the former Boston Edison site. But the agency does run a major cargo port nearby, the Conley shipping terminal. In 2017, Massport opened a bypass road that connects Conley to Summer Street via a bridge in front of the hulking old plant, to keep trucks away from homes on East First Street.
Massport secured a restriction on the Edison property with its previous owner, back in 2014, aimed at preventing residential units from being built there. The goal: to protect Conley and its truck traffic for the long haul.
But Campbell worries Massport might be about to ease that restriction to make way for the 1.9 million-square-foot campus that Boston’s Redgate and Illinois-based Hilco Redevelopment Partners envision for the Edison site. He says he finds it inexplicable that planning has proceeded with the implicit assumption that Massport will lift the housing restriction. In his letter, he calls on Massport to explain its apparent shifting rationale, and to provide a public process for the decision. And he points to a boast on Redgate’s website, describing the firm as a port authority consultant, as evidence of a potential conflict.
From Massport’s perspective, Campbell’s letter is premature. As recently as October, Massport expressed its own concerns that elements of the project would clash with port operations. Two proposed apartment blocks, the agency said at the time, would be too close to the Conley terminal’s industrial activities. A spokeswoman says the agency has taken no action on releasing the deed restriction, and Massport staff will present the issue to the agency’s board when it’s appropriate. (Side note: The spokeswoman says Massport hasn’t used Redgate as a consultant since 2014.)
Redgate principal Ralph Cox says he remains confident that the potential conflicts with Massport can be overcome, in part by locating residential buildings away from the freight corridor and by properly alerting people moving in about the haul road. (Cox, by the way, was once a top executive at Massport, more than two decades ago.)
No one wants to see the mothballed Edison plant standing empty and fenced-off for years to come. Campbell says he thinks Redgate could consider just commercial development for the site, skipping the housing.
The massive project, which also includes offices and two hotels, has drawn a mixed reaction from neighbors. Many are excited about getting the polluted site cleaned up and put to good use. A proposed “arts and industry” space received praise. But this is Southie: Concerns about traffic and parking persist. Although developers scaled back the residential portion last year, more than 1,300 apartments and condos remain. The neighborhood’s most powerful politician, Representative Stephen Lynch, urged city officials in October to pare the project back further.
CLF has tangled with Massport before on port issues, most notably with an effort to help tenants on the Fish Pier in the early 2000s. The environmental group doesn’t always get what it wants. But it can be a powerful ally — or a formidable foe. Its final role in this waterfront saga remains to be seen.Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.