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The Conservation Law Foundation might be best known for its environmental battles — for clean water, clean energy, and the like. But the group is also emerging as a guardian for a different cause: protecting Boston’s industrial ports as development pressures squeeze the working waterfront.

Consider CLF’s latest shot across the bow: an effort to stop the conversion of two industrial buildings in Charlestown to residential use.

The real estate company that controls the Charlestown Commerce Center at 30-50 Terminal St., Pizzuti Development, hasn’t even filed formal development plans yet. Still, CLF fired off a letter last week to the Boston Planning & Development Agency that expresses significant concerns about the potential loss of the industrial uses there.

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The developer has circulated renderings of one concept, dubbed “Lofts on Mystic,” that would pack hundreds of condos into the nearly half-empty industrial structures.

These buildings, which together have more than 400,000 square feet of space, went up more than a century ago to provide storage for the cotton trade. The demand for eight-story warehouses like these has slipped a bit since that time. Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Pizzuti, says the buildings are now functionally obsolete, as evidenced by their 40 percent vacancy rate.

Joyce says repurposing the twin structures for housing makes sense given the fierce demand for residential real estate in the city, and in the neighborhood. Prices could range from $350,000 to $650,000 for the units, a relative bargain in Charlestown, and she says many income-restricted condos would be available for considerably less. The goal: housing that a typical Boston worker can actually afford. A redevelopment also would open up a part of the Mystic waterfront that’s currently closed off to the public.

That sounds appealing. But there are downsides, as CLF president Brad Campbell outlined in the May 7 letter he sent to City Hall. Port sites are a finite resource, he says, and shouldn’t be further whittled away. Plus, Campbell cited the potential for conflicts. The property is bounded on both sides by industrial uses: Massport’s auto shipping terminal, salt storage, a cement plant.

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To build condos there, the developer needs a zoning change from the BPDA, in addition to the typical project reviews. Campbell wants city officials to enforce the existing zoning. His stated reason: to ensure industrial operations in the Mystic port area continue to flourish.

To some astute followers of waterfront politics, this jousting might sound familiar. In January, Campbell sent a similar letter to Massport, raising issues with a massive mixed-use development proposed for the old Boston Edison site on Summer Street in South Boston, overlooking the Reserved Channel. Massport has an easement there that blocks housing, to protect its cargo operations next door. To put residential units there, developers would need to negotiate a deal with Massport first.

The Edison project is being revised a second time to reflect the Southie community’s remaining concerns, developer Ralph Cox says. The goal, Cox says, is to restore the empty power station with commercial, residential and retail uses that mesh with the neighborhood. It’s unclear what role, if any, CLF’s objections are playing.

This time, Campbell went straight to the city’s land-use authority to raise a stink. Rich McGuinness, a waterfront planner in City Hall, says the residential conversion of the Charlestown Commerce Center requires additional discussion at the BPDA. City officials want to be flexible when repositioning old structures, he says, but remain concerned about the potential clashes with the industrial uses next door.

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Campbell says CLF is championing this cause because of its role as a watchdog of state waterfront regulations, a responsibility that includes designated port areas. He says CLF has become more involved lately because these industrial parcels, and the jobs they support, are under greater threat amid the heat of the real estate market.

The ensuing debate over the Charlestown site underscores yet again the important civic debate that Boston faces: which old industrial properties should be protected, and which ones should be reimagined for an ever-evolving city.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.