A neighborhood’s identity shouldn’t just be able to be wiped out by fiat — at least not without some stiff resistance. In the span of a decade, though, the mass of land sandwiched between the Fort Point Channel, First Street, and Boston Harbor has been wiped clean twice, as Boston’s Seaport District was rechristened first as the South Boston Waterfront, and then as the city’s Innovation District. Fierce (if shifting) identity politics define Boston, and no one would dare pull this trick in a place like Roslindale; it’s a testament to how disconnected the Seaport is from the rest of Boston that City Hall managed to pull it off twice in a short span.
The redevelopment of Boston’s old industrial waterfront has come in fits and starts, but the hundreds of undeveloped acres across the channel represent far too big a prize for the effort’s conclusion to ever be in doubt. Once the Seaport building boom winds down, will the district exist as just a collection of buildings ringed by streets, or will it become a real, functioning, breathing neighborhood, the way the Back Bay and South Boston are?
It’s a question of whether the Seaport can become the sort of place that can’t be wiped clean and rebooted with every hot idea from City Hall. And over the next few years, that question is going to be answered in places like D Street.
The Seaport’s half of D Street isn’t much to look at right now. In South Boston proper, the street is a main residential artery. But running north from Broadway, D Street fades from the bustle of South Boston’s main commercial stretch, down past some three-story walkups, to a stretch of dusty industrial properties and empty lots, before emptying out at the massive South Boston convention center, and the glistening new waterfront. It’s one jarring transition after another. One block has nothing to do with the others. Broadway lies a mile down D Street from the harbor, but the two might as well be in opposite corners of the city. And this is the main north-south artery running between South Boston and the Seaport/South Boston Waterfront/Innovation District. The other roads running between the two neighborhoods provide even more tenuous connections.
The main lines of activity in the Seaport run east-west, from the Fort Point Channel, along Summer and Congress Streets, and to the waterfront piers, and the Marine Industrial Park. Visitors cross the channel and head straight east, and redevelopment efforts have followed the traffic. Fan Pier, Seaport Square, and the World Trade Center complex all represent efforts to shift the center of gravity of Boston’s old downtown. They have little or nothing to do with South Boston’s old residential neighborhoods, which are separated from the old shipping and manufacturing flats by a ring of light industrial properties. Office and residential towers are now rising on top of parking lots Southie kids once played street hockey on, and much of the neighborhood has stronger links to the parking lots’ past than they do to the neighborhood’s future.
That’s why what’s happening on D Street matters more than any of the other development projects percolating throughout the Seaport. Fan Pier, Pier 4, and Seaport Square grab headlines because of their scale, but on D Street, Boston is building a real link between the Seaport and South Boston.
Liberty Wharf, the sparkling restaurant complex that replaced the old Jimmy’s Harborside, sits at the head of D Street. A block away down D Street, the Drew Company is building 236 apartments at Waterside Place, and a block down from that, the convention center is hoping to build a new 1,000-room headquarters hotel on a vacant piece of state-owned land. The convention center is moving ahead with plans to build two smaller hotels on a five-acre D Street lot it bought earlier this year, while a pair of large apartment developments bracket the convention center’s new hotel site. The larger of the two, West Square apartments, will replace a couple of derelict warehouses, and bring hundreds of new residents to what is now the edge of South Boston’s residential zone.
Taken together, these new hotels and apartment complexes will funnel people and activity between the old neighborhood and the emerging waterfront. They’ll anchor the Seaport to the rest of the city, and turn an isolated collection of half-built city blocks into an organic place with its own identity, and staying power.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.