Video depicts how rising seas will affect South Boston
The developers who want to turn South Boston’s shuttered L Street Power Station into a huge complex of housing and office space know that rising seas will someday come for their waterfront site.
Now they’re releasing a video that shows, in vivid detail, just how much and where that water might go.
A time-lapse video by the landscape architects working on the huge project scrolls through 30 years of climate change in 30 seconds, giving an unusually up-close look at how new buildings along Boston’s booming waterfront might fare in a future with seas significantly higher than they are today.
It starts benignly enough, with water 18 inches above current levels, then swells to 40 inches. Next comes a heavy storm that swamps the complex’s elaborate waterfront landscaping, but leaves the buildings themselves dry.
The project is under review by the Boston Civic Design Commission, and its planners hope to illustrate how waterfront development and rising seas might co-exist for decades to come.
“It’s a communication device, trying to help people understand how the landscape works,” said Amy Whitesides, a director at Stoss, a Boston-based urban design firm that specializes in climate resiliency. “It’s not exact, but we’re trying to illustrate the concepts.”
The project is one of a growing number around Boston Harbor — including those in East Boston and the Seaport — that are being built to withstand the rising ocean.
In this case, two-and-a-half acres of open space along the Reserved Channel will be landscaped to rise several feet between the current water line and the buildings, with a network of boardwalks, tiered seating, and a deck over the water where an old pumphouse now stands.
“The idea is to connect the community to the waterfront, to make it feel more open,” Whitesides said. “And the landscape is doing the work of protecting the buildings and the neighborhood from rising seas.”
Meanwhile, a fight continues over what the 1.8 million square feet of buildings on the huge site would house.
More than two years ago, the developers — a partnership between Redgate and Hilco Real Estate — pitched a blend of office space and housing in nine buildings across the 15-acre site. The mix tilted heavily toward housing, with nearly 1,600 apartments and condominiums proposed in the initial plan. That would have made it one of the largest housing developments in the city.
But some residents, and South Boston’s elected officials, have pushed back hard against housing on the site. They say they’re concerned about how adding so many residents to the already-booming neighborhood would affect parking, traffic. They also point to the increasingly-busy Conley Shipping Terminal next to the power station site.
The Massachusetts Port Authority just built a $75 million truck road on a bridge over the channel in front of the plant, connecting the shipping terminal to the Summer Street Bridge and routing trucks off of First Street. As part of that project, the plant’s former owner, Exelon, agreed that no housing would be built on the site, a deal that came with Redgate’s purchase of the plant in 2015.
When Redgate filed its development plan two years ago, Massport officials sounded open to waiving the restriction on housing, as long as it was built toward the rear of the site, away from the road. But no formal request from Redgate has yet been made, and a Massport spokeswoman said it won’t decide whether to approve a housing component until it sees a final plan from the developers.
“We look forward to further conversations with the developer,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan.
For now, Redgate remains at odds with elected officials, who say they’d prefer no housing at all on the site. They’re pushing for development that they say would better complement the port and bring jobs to the neighborhood. State senator Nick Collins, who represents South Boston, said it makes little sense to put high-end condos on what is a working waterfront with a bright industrial future.
“The Commonwealth has invested a lot in the success of the port,” Collins said. “We have to get this right.”
Both sides sat down to talk last week, but people familiar with the conversation said it did not go well. That apparently has Redgate thinking more about alternative plans. At a BCDC meeting last week, the developers showed plans suggesting 750 units of housing — down from the 1,300 included in plans filed last year — with nearly a half-million square feet of “research and development” space instead.
In a statement Friday, Redgate principal Ralph Cox hinted that his firm might even scrap the idea of building housing there.
“We continue to explore a range of alternative uses for the buildings shown, including an all commercial site,” he said. “We are working to finalize our plans and will make them available once they are filed with the BPDA.”