Chelsea reclaims its waterfront
Winter in Massachusetts means snow and ice and slush. Above all, it means salt — untold tons of the stuff, piled high in the backs of trucks, and then scattered on roads throughout the state. A good portion of this salt comes to Massachusetts from overseas, by way of a dock along the Chelsea Creek. The barges that pull up to the salt dock keep cars on the roads, rather than piled up on the guardrails. They also keep Chelsea residents walled off from their waterfront.
Now, however, that’s changing. For the first time, Chelsea is breaking through the heavy industry piled up along the Chelsea Creek, and reconnecting with its waterfront. This is the same sort of reclamation project that’s underway, with more fanfare, across the harbor in Boston. There’s one major difference between the two: Boston is seeing a boom in real estate that industry left behind, while Chelsea is bringing its citizens to the waterfront by growing industry.
Chelsea and Boston grew up the same way, with centers of commerce clustered inland, and industrial companies spreading up and down the waterfront. Both cities viewed their waterfronts similarly — as a piece of industrial infrastructure. The two cities’ fates have diverged partly because Boston has less of its old waterfront intact, so it’s been better able to piggyback off the great waterfront’s shift to an environmental and recreational asset.
Maritime industry has largely abandoned Boston’s waterfront. Piers that once brimmed with cargo ships, rail beds, and heavy freight have given way to sleek, high-rent real estate developments. In places like South Boston and East Boston, developers are building the city’s future on the bones of an abandoned industrial past. This transformation was born from rot and obsolescence, and it never came for Chelsea. The dense little city lies just over the creek from East Boston, but its waterfront looks markedly different, mainly because industry never abandoned Chelsea. Water rings half of Chelsea, and the city meets the water with massive oil storage tanks, airport parking lots, and docks piled high with roadway salt.
Before Jay Ash became Chelsea’s city manager, he was a Chelsea kid. Growing up, Ash says, he didn’t feel any connection to the water that lay blocks away. “I didn’t know I lived on the waterfront,” Ash says. He couldn’t see the water, and he surely couldn’t get to it. That’s changing now, not because Chelsea dumped its industry, but because it’s growing it smartly.
The Eastern Minerals salt dock spans 6 acres along the Chelsea Creek. The salt destined for icy local roads comes off the barge here and sits in massive piles, some 200,000 tons at a time, waiting in the Tobin Bridge’s shadow to be picked up and trucked across the state. A few years ago, the waterfront fuel storage business next door to the salt dock went belly-up, and Eastern pounced on the site. Chelsea welcomed the move, because it is allowing the city to reconnect with its waterfront.
Eastern is constructing a new public park alongside its expanded Chelsea salt dock. Chelsea’s biggest waterfront park lies on the far side of the Tobin, away from most of Chelsea’s residents; the new salt dock park, dubbed the PORT, will provide many residents with their first direct access to the waterfront. The park, which is set to open in June, will have a thoroughly urban, industrial feel.
The PORT park sits in an active industrial port, and it won’t pretend it’s in some pristine stretch of coastline. The park’s architect, Dan Adams, is repurposing geodesic domes from the site’s old fuel tanks into landscape trellises. A retaining dike meant to contain spilled fuel is being converted into an amphitheatre. Old ships’ loading platforms will become waterfront viewing platforms. The park recycles asphalt from Logan Airport runways and junk granite salvaged from the recent reconstruction of Chelsea Street Bridge. The space takes advantage of the salt dock’s seasonality: It expands to encompass basketball courts and event space during the summer, and cedes the asphalt to salt during the busy winter months. It lets Chelsea reclaim its waterfront without pushing industry aside, and shows that public waterfronts and industrial rot don’t have to come hand in hand.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.