Imagine soaring 200 feet above Boston Harbor. Off the end of Long Wharf. On a giant wheel.
That’s the vision a group of Canadian developers have been discreetly pitching to waterfront neighborhood groups and City Hall in recent weeks, hoping to build support for a plan to build an “observation wheel” off of Long Wharf. The structure would extend over the water, with two buildings and outdoor seating. Such a complex, no doubt, would enliven — and forever change — one of the most historic spots on Boston’s waterfront.
If it ever happens.
The plans are so preliminary that organizers wouldn’t share images with the Globe, saying they are likely to change. They haven’t even nailed down a site: In addition to Long Wharf, Christopher Columbus Park and other busy spots on the downtown waterfront are under consideration.
But the group, which calls itself Boston Freedom Wheel LLC, sees potential in Boston and wants to build a “world class attraction” on the waterfront, said its general counsel, Brian Burke.
The Freedom Wheel outfit has no connection to the group pitching a Ferris wheel for the Charlestown Navy Yard, but it did open a similar observation wheel in 2017 in Montreal.
“We’re hoping people will see the benefit of this to the city, and the skyline,” Burke said. “If there’s enough support, we’re hoping we can move forward.”
There will be many hurdles to clear first.
For starters, Long Wharf is owned by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which would need to allow other entities to apply to use the site before it could award the rights to Boston Freedom Wheel. What’s more, the BPDA has been entangled for years in lawsuits over plans for a much smaller restaurant on the end of the pier, which judges have ruled is protected parkland.
Then there’s zoning, which limits the height of new buildings along the waterfront, and a long-debated, just-finished plan for the area that makes no mention of new buildings, or an observation wheel, on Long Wharf. (At 200 feet, the Freedom Wheel would be half the height of nearby Harbor Towers, and less than half the height of the London Eye, the observation wheel on the River Thames.)
The plan also would have to satisfy new city regulations on climate resiliency and state laws governing public access to the waterfront. And depending on where the wheel is situated, it could interfere with popular boat lanes in the harbor.
“We still need to explore the regulatory issues,” Burke said. “To do that, we need to speak with people, to see if this is a nonstarter or if this is something that can be done.”
People who have been in preliminary meetings with Burke and his team are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Marc Margulies, president of the Wharf District Council said, he liked the idea of drawing more people to Long Wharf, but wasn’t convinced an observation wheel was the best way to do it.
“The idea of having a more active waterfront is a good one,” said Margulies, who met with Burke a few weeks ago. “I don’t know if this is the answer.”
Mary McGee, past president of the North End/Waterfront Residents Association, was less impressed.
“I don’t think there was anyone [at our meeting] who thought it was a good idea,” she said. “The only worse idea was their original proposal to put it in front of Christopher Columbus Park.”
Any major development at the end of Long Wharf would be a mistake, said McGee, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit over the city’s plans for a restaurant there. It works as a quiet, passive park that gives people access to the water, she said, and a massive wheel — along with large buildings at the base — would effectively wall it off.
“You could be standing there and unable to see the water at all,” McGee said.
Neighborhood resistance, especially over restricted access to the waterfront, could be a deal killer. The BPDA’s director, Brian Golden, said the agency would go through a “robust” community process for any proposal and listen closely to what residents have to say.
“We strongly believe that public access to the waterfront and open space along Long Wharf should be protected,” Golden said in a statement. “Any proposal of this magnitude would need to garner significant support from the community as well as city and state stakeholders before moving forward.”
Burke said his team is working to build that support and will improve the Harborwalk as part of its Long Wharf plans. The group’s $21 million La Grande Roue de Montreal, which is open year-round and features climate-controlled cars, has been popular since it opened in the fall of 2017, he said, and has helped to bring new visitors to restaurants and stores in Montreal’s neighboring Old Port.
“We’ve had a very positive response from the community there,” he said.
Burke, a South Boston native, acknowledged the reception in Boston might be different, and that constructing a giant observation wheel along an historic and crowded stretch of the downtown waterfront could prove complex. But, he noted, other cities have done it.
“They have a Ferris wheel on the Chicago waterfront. They were able to build the London Eye on the Thames, across from Big Ben and Westminster,” Burke said. “If you can put something there, there’s no reason we can’t put something like this in Boston.”