For generations, Anthony’s Pier 4 on the South Boston waterfront was a destination for special occasions.
The famed restaurant, known for its popovers, lobster newburg, and a wall of famous diners’ pictures, closed five years ago and was later razed to make way for redevelopment. Now, the company behind that project hopes the site will once again become a place where people gather.
Development firm Tishman Speyer took the wraps off a new public park at the water’s end of Pier 4 earlier this fall. Past a glass-wrapped office tower and a fancy condo building, an acre of grass, plaza, and boardwalk reaches out over the harbor’s edge.
It’s the latest in a series of waterfront parks that have opened in the Seaport District in recent years as major development has rolled through the neighborhood. And it again raises the question of how to make these truly public spaces, not just front yards for the residents of the expensive condominiums next door.
“It’s a pier that has never been open before,” said Jessica Hughes, managing director of Tishman’s Boston office, “unless you were eating popovers at Anthony’s.”
When Tishman bought the pier from another developer in 2014, a year after Anthony’s was closed, and began pushing ahead with plans to build on it, the company knew that state environmental law — known as Chapter 91 — would require devoting half of the site to publicly accessible open space. That’s true for nearly all waterfront development in Boston, part of an effort to improve public access to the harbor. But so far, the result has been a mishmash of parks, piers, and plazas that critics say feel unwelcoming, and often add up to less than the sum of their parts.
“That’s the larger problem down there,” said Deanna Moran, director of environmental planning at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has challenged several waterfront projects and zoning plans over public access. “Developers see Chapter 91 as an obligation, instead of an opportunity. They just fit it to meet their predeveloped plan.”
But at Pier 4, Hughes said, Tishman is attempting to do better.
The company reshaped the two buildings that had been approved for the site, making the street-level open space flow more smoothly from the Institute of Contemporary Art next door. They rebuilt the pier’s sea wall and raised the site by two feet to better withstand storms and rising seas. And it hired landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand to design the park with an eye to drawing people from Seaport Boulevard and Northern Avenue, several blocks off the harbor.
The result is a stretch of boardwalk along the edges of the fingerlike pier, and a swoop of grass on the harbor side. There are stretches that extend out over the water, and down stairs to the harbor itself. At high tide, the bottom steps are submerged.
“This is one of the few places in the city where you can actually dip your toes in the water,” Hughes said.
On a cloudy, cold morning last week, the park was mostly empty. The dull roar of planes taking off at Logan Airport was punctuated by occasional car horns from Seaport Boulevard and the sound of water lapping against the pier.
The intention was to create a space apart from the bustle of the city, said Eric Kramer, a Reed Hilderbrand principal who helped design the project, and also to make people feel welcome. There are benches and mounted binoculars — at a child’s height — for taking in the views. And unlike some nearby piers, there are no signs stipulating what you can’t do there — like skateboard, or let your dog on the grass.
“They’ve done a really nice job of drawing you out there in terms of design and landscaping,” said Alice Brown, director of planning at Boston Harbor Now, which advocates for waterfront access. “And they put enough space out there that says, yeah, it’s worth it to come all the way to the end. That’s something developers of long piers have struggled with.”
Still, Moran said, there is room for improvement. There are no signs indicating that this is, in fact, a public park and part of the Harborwalk, a series of public paths and boardwalks ringing the harbor. The benches — some made of reclaimed hunks of sea wall — are so subtle that a passerby might not even recognize them as a place to sit. And there’s little actual grass, she noted, just a modest patch that slopes at a gentle angle.
“Kids are not going to want to play at this park. You’re not going to get families,” she said. “It attracts a certain kind of person, which is what the Seaport has gotten a bad name for.”
Hughes believes otherwise. Even during the brief period of pleasant weather this fall, the park drew a wide range of visitors, she said, including families from nearby buildings. The condo building’s first retail tenant — the farm-to-table Woods Hill restaurant — opened before Thanksgiving, and it’s aiming to fill ground-floor retail space with tenants that will appeal to a mix of visitors, giving people more reasons to venture beyond the Seaport District’s main thoroughfares and out to the water’s edge.
“I think people will use the heck out of this park,” Hughes said. “We want them to make a day of it here.”
Kind of like they did at Anthony’s in the old days.